Reading and Interpreting Poems
"An accurate taste in poetry can only be produced by severe thought, and long continued intercourse with the best models of composition."                        --William Wordsworth

I. Reading: Poetry, like music, is both sensuous and cerebral, both direct and artificial. A good poem and a good interpretation of a poem should consider the rhythms, sounds, and feelings of the poem along with its meter, word-choice, and technique. Also like music, poetry invites participation and performance. Just as when we hear a good song, we naturally want to sing along, so when we read a good poem, we want to read it aloud or want to hear someone else read it aloud. Indeed, poetry began as song. Like a song, a poem communicates through both its direct, gut-piercing rhythms and its artful composition. Since you must feel the poem before you will want to think about it, first read the poem aloud, slowly and carefully, concentrating on the meaning and savoring the words. Ask yourself what is the subject of the poem? Who are the main characters? What are they doing or saying? Where are they?

II. Interpreting: A good poem works on you on several levels at once. For example, Robert Frost's poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" (Ellmann 131) works on at least three levels, the literal, figurative, and sonic. On the literal level, the poem tells a little story about a guy (the narrator) who stops to watch a neighbor's "woods fill up with snow." The narrator speculates on what his horse must think about stopping "without a farmhouse near" on the "darkest evening of the year." In the last stanza, the narrator tells us that "The woods are lovely, dark, and deep," but he still must be going: "But I have promises to keep, / And miles to go before I sleep, / And miles to go before I sleep."

While this little story is mildly interesting ("I stopped to watch it snowing in the woods, but then I had to get going"), many students will suspect that there probably is more to this poem, especially since it was considered "deep" and "lovely" enough to be included in a college textbook. At least part of that "more" occurs on the figurative level. (There are other levels too, as we'll see.) The figurative level involves something more, an extra meaning, usually obtained through simile, metaphor, metonymy, allegory, or symbol (Ellmann xli-xlix). In this poem for example, the snowy woods, the "miles to go," and the sleep can all be read figuratively. The woods and snow could stand for the beauty of the world, while the "miles to go" could represent the long journey through life that everyone must make. And "sleep" is a common metaphor for death. This interpretation could be extended. We've all heard stories of exhausted hikers who collapse in the snow, fall asleep, and drop off into the darkness of death. So perhaps the darkness and loveliness of the woods are related: maybe beauty is dangerous to everyday commitments ("promises"), and even to your health?

Now, not everyone will arrive at this exact interpretation, but something in this area is implied by the figurative language of the poem. We can argue about specific details (many of you may see no collapsing hikers), but in general, I think most people would agree that the poem creates a contrast ("But . . .") between the dark loveliness of beauty and the commitments ("promises") of daily life. Notice how interpretation tends to move from the concrete details of the poem (about woods, snow, harness bells, etc.) to abstract statements about life ("beauty is dangerous"). Interpretation looks for meanings, and in formal interpretation, meanings are often expressed more abstractly than they are in the concrete, sensuous language of the poem. Put it another way: the meaning that you feel when you read can be made explicit when you think about it. When making an interpretation, there should be a certain logic that connects the concrete with the abstract.

As I noted above, there are other levels in this poem besides the literal and figurative. For example, even at the literal level, we could ask for more information: just why is this guy stopping in the middle of a cold winter night to watch some empty woods "fill up with snow"? And why did he think it important enough to write a poem about it? You'll find that questions about a narrator's or author's motivations will often have quite a few interesting answers which can lead to insights into the poem's meaning. Besides levels of meaning, or sense, there are levels of sound, like rhyme. Sound reinforces meaning, or sense. As Alexander Pope wrote in 1711, "'Tis not enough no harshness gives offense; / The sound must seem an echo to the sense." For example, the first three stanzas have an aaba, bbcb, ccdc rhyme scheme. The last stanza, however, rhymes all four lines together (dddd). What effects do you think the poet creates by having only a single rhyme in the last stanza? Here are some basic questions you can ask of any poem:

1. Genre. What kind of poem is this? (Love sonnet, rap, satire, ode, free verse, etc.)

2. Tone and Diction. What is the poet's tone of voice or range of feeling? Often, we talk about tone and feeling by using adjectives such as "witty," "despairing," "solemn," or "ironic." One tone may dominate, but most good poems cover a range of subtle emotions. Do you see any interesting, unusual, or apt word choices (diction) here? Where do you find the poet's word choice to be particularly important or effective? How? Why?

3. Intention. What do you think is the poet's aim? What effects does he or she want to produce? Tone, diction (word choice), and genre can help you decide this question. For example, an ode is likely to aim at more "elevated" emotions than a satire.

4. Themes. For example, what does Frost's poem say about "promises"? Why do characters or the poet-narrator act as they do? Note thematic repetitions, patterns, and / or oppositions. What do they tell us about the message(s) of the poem?

5. In what ways do sound patterns like assonance, consonance, alliteration, puns, rhyme, rhythm, and meter relate to sense patterns (themes)? How do sound and rhythm echo or reinforce sense, feeling, and intention? In what ways does figurative language like imagery, symbols, and metaphors contribute or add to the meaning(s) of the poem?

Do you see any patterns formed by these images? In what ways do these patterns contribute to the total effect?

6. Period / Historical / Aesthetic. How does the work exemplify the period? What comments does it make on the society of its time? Do you detect any allusions to other texts or to myth? What world-view does the poem promote? What views of the use of poetry, of the poet's function, and of the imagination are presented or implied in the text?

7. Response: Which passages in the poem do you respond to most strongly and why?

Relate the poem's themes and message to today's world. Don't worry: exploration and analysis should not destroy your response, but enrich it.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening (Robert Frost)
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.