Every school year after I distributed the course syllabus to my students, I looked with glee to the point at which I would announce the words, “Introduction to Poetry”: the room would virtually vibrate from the collective sucking in of breath, hissing, and occasional banging of various heads on their desks. At this point, I would dramatically flourish my multicolored dry erase markers and begin the “countdown to poetry” on my board. I assured my students it would be relatively painless and, to the surprise of most of my class, poetry was typically just that.
At least, it was until I asked them to write sonnets, but that’s in an entirely different guide and you’ll have to wait for it.
You’re here because you are either unusually curious about literature and language, which is an admirable thing, or you are Frightened Beyond Rational Thought at the poetry assignment you’ve been given. It’s understandable. Poetry can seem confusing and intimidating, especially if you’ve never used Mother Morgan’s Handy Dandy Guide To Poetry, but I digress. You have it here and we’re about to jump in.
What is a Poem?
No, I’m not being obtuse. It’s a legitimate question. What makes something a poem? Ask yourself the following questions:
1. Is it original?
2. Does it have rhythm?
3. Does it have universal appeal?
If you wish, you could also ask yourself this: would my Significant Other want to hear it at open mike night at the local poetry reading?
If you answer yes to any or all of the above, it’s probably a poem. If you answered yes to all but the fourth option, it’s time to consider pointing your S.O. in the direction of this study guide.
Your Next Step
Decide if the author really believes that the conditions represented in the piece are true. In other words, does it sound like an expression of a thought that, while it may not be original (then again, it just might be!), is said in an original, sincere way? If it does, it is poetic.
Don’t fixate on working out the meaning of the poem. That comes later. As poet Archibald MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica” states in the closing rhyming couplet (the what? Don’t worry — we’ll get to that in another lesson), “A poem should not mean/ But be.”
So you’ve looked at a poem, read it thoroughly, maybe twice. You figure that, yes, it is a poem, but that doesn’t seem to clarify anything for you. Then you are asked to discuss the poem. Panic ensues.
How to Discuss The Poem
I shall use the infamous “Mary Had a Little Lamb” to help me illustrate — infamous because everyone knows that one should never, ever leave one’s lamb loose where it could cause mayhem in a classroom, especially one in which a poetry lesson is taking place.
1. Give your gut responses to the poem. If you get stuck, try finishing the following phrases: “When I read the title, I felt the poem would be about…” and “After I read this poem, I felt…” That should do the trick.
Example: “Um, after I read this poem, I felt sorry for the poor little lamb to have such an insensitive lout for an owner.”
2. Explain what the poem is about. Keep it short and simple.
Example: “There was a little girl named Mary who went to school and her pet lamb followed her. It made a scene.”
3. Paraphrase the poem (summarize the poem using a basic sentence structure and, in some cases, easier or more simplified vocabulary).
Example: “Mary had a little white lamb that followed her to school. This broke the rules, and the kids went nuts when they saw it.”
4. Now comes the fun part! Look at the mechanics of the poem — the things that make it different from a prose statement. What’s a prose statement, you ask? Glad you did — well done. Prose is the normal, everyday pattern of language that flows naturally and is separate from poetry, with its rhythms and poetic goodness. Do not hiss, suck in your breath or bang your head on the desk. I got you to this point well enough, didn’t I?
At this point, you discuss all the ways the poem is different. Why did the writer write it this way? What makes it special? “Mary Had a Little Lamb” would perhaps be entertaining to the average toddler if you paraphrased it like we did in the above example — which is a fine example of prose, as you well know if you were paying attention. What makes it different and special is the musical quality to it… that “something” you’re still not sure how to explain because you haven’t read the rest of the poetry guide.
Let me illustrate it another way. Here are two examples of roughly the same sentiment. One is poetry and one is prose. By now, you should be able to tell which is which:
A. “I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” — Robert Louis Stevenson, “Travels With A Donkey”
B. “When I get to heaven, tie me to a tree ’cause I’ll begin to roam and soon you know where I will be. I was born under a wand’ring star.” — Lee Marvin, “Paint Your Wagon”
Which is poetry and which is prose? By now, this should be fairly simple. If it isn’t, reread this guide and try it again.
So, why is the second example poetry? Both express roughly the same thought: the speaker can’t stay in one place for too long. The first says this in a very straightforward manner, and, yes, it is prose. You might have to think about it for a bit, but that’s the mark of a great writer — to make you think, enjoy the language, and want to read more. The second example needs to be read more than once to really appreciate it. It’s clever, it’s original, it’s musical… it’s good. Even if you don’t like it, you must agree it’s poetic. It answered the basic three questions with a resounding, “Yes!”
Once you’ve determined whether something is, in fact, a poem, and you work out precisely why, you’ll want to examine Imagery and Poetic Devices… coming soon to a Study Guide near you.