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1.6: The Poetry Genre

  • Page ID
    222959
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    Definition

    Poetry is a form of literary art that uses aesthetic and rhythmic qualities of language to evoke meanings in addition to, or in place of, prosaic ostensible meaning (ordinary intended meaning). Poetry has traditionally been distinguished from prose by its being set in verse. Additionally, prose is cast in sentences while poetry is in lines, and the syntax of prose is dictated by meaning, whereas that of poetry is held across meter or the visual aspects of the poem.

    While poetry sometimes rhymes, it does not always. It is the rhythmic pattern of words that sets it apart from the natural speech of the other genres. However, poems also place particular emphasis on figurative language, symbolism, and abstractions. This is often the characteristic that either draws fans to poetry or deters those from wanting to study it. Meaning is often indirect in a poem, putting much responsibility on the reader to analyze and decipher the various nuances of feeling and meaning with it.

    One way to better understand poetry is by analyzing the elements that make up a good poem. Poems are written in either closed or open form. Closed form poems are written in specific patterns, using meter, line length, and line groupings called stanzas. Open form poems, often still referred to as "free verse" poems, do not use regular rhythmic patterns (i.e., metric feet), are usually unrhymed, have varying line lengths, and have no set line groupings. As you analyze a poem for an oral interpretation performance, remember that you are looking for relationships between the formal devices of poetry, like word choice, metric pattern, metaphor, and the poem's subject. A thorough investigation of the elements of a poem helps you to better understand the poem.

    Analyzing Poetry

    Muriel Rukeyser says in The Life of Poetry that to successfully read a poem, we must give a poem “a total response.” This means giving it all our attention, taking it in slowly, reading it several times. It means listening to the poem openly, without judgment, and without projecting our own assumed meanings onto it. Instead, Rukeyser writes, it means coming “to the emotional meanings at every moment.” As she explains, “That is one reason for the high concentration of music, in poetry.”

    To come to emotional meanings at every moment means to adjust and react to the way a poem takes shape with every word, every line, every sentence, every stanza. Each poem creates its own universe as it moves from line to line. It is a universe that Rukeyser describes as the “universe of emotional truth.” So how exactly does one listen with his or her emotions?

    Reading creates an indirect, yet intimate, connection between reader and author. As readers, we take the author’s words—their breath—into ourselves. We shape the words with our own bodies and, too, give them life with our own breath. Reading poetry, we breathe in what a poet breathes out. We share breath. The words and their meanings become part of our body as they move through our mind, triggering sensations in our bodies that lead to thoughts. And through this process, we have experiences that are new and that change us as much as any other experience can.

    Poetry is a condensed art form that produces an experience in a reader through words. And though words may appear visually as symbols on the page, the experience that poems produce in us is much more physical and direct. The elements of poetry permit a poet to control many aspects of language—tone, pace, rhythm, sound—as well as language’s effects: images, ideas, sensations. These elements give power to the poet to shape a reader’s physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual experience of the poem. Because form and function are so closely intertwined, it is impossible to paraphrase a poem. This is why we must read poems with full concentration and focus more than once. It is why we must read them out loud. It is why we must be attentive to every aspect of the poem on both ends: as a writer, and as a reader.

    Readers come to the page with different backgrounds and a range of different experiences with poetry, but it is how we read a poem that determines our experience of it. “Reading” or even “analyzing” a poem may not be the best description of this process. Instead, one who plans to perform a poem must go through the actual process of “coming to” the poem, ingesting its lines, and responding emotionally.

    Consider the following poem by Emily Dickinson:

    I ’M nobody! Who are you?

    Are you nobody, too?

    Then there’s a pair of us—don’t tell!

    They’d banish us, you know.

    How dreary to be somebody!

    How public, like a frog

    To tell your name the livelong day

    To an admiring bog!

    Upon first read of this poem, one might conclude the speaker is thankful she is not popular and well known by others. However, after further analysis, it is possible that this speaker truly does wish to be part of the in-crowd. Perhaps she is trying to impress or identify with the person to whom she is speaking by saying these things while she secretly wishes to be one of the popular people. You can see how the interpretation one chooses for this poem would affect the way one would say the words, use pauses, and select appropriate facial expressions.

    Performance of Poetry

    Since poetry can vary in its levels of abstraction, some find it frustrating to read since meaning is often connotative and indirect. This can make it difficult to decide how to perform it an adequately assign meaning to its words with our delivery. However, an oral interpreter of poetry must thoroughly understand a poem to honor it properly and convey each nuance of its meaning and feeling. For example, a performer could not decide where the narrator should gaze if she hasn’t thought about to whom the narrator is speaking. If a performer has not considered the emotions or motivations behind the narrator’s words in a poem, he will not be able to use appropriate facial expressions, posture, or vocal inflection.

    You may find the following considerations helpful as they provide characteristics to look for when analyzing poetry. You can use the answers to these prompts to help you make decisions on how to choose themes/messages to highlight in a performance. They will also help you make performance choices on how to use your voice and body to perform a poem for your audience:

    Determine the Subject of the Poem

    • Paraphrase/summarize the poem: what is it about?
    • Does the poem address a social, psychological, historical, or mythical phenomenon?

    Identify the Poem’s Narrator

    • Who is speaking? Consider age, gender, occupation, and more.
    • To whom?
    • Under what circumstances? Identify the setting.

    Identify the Narrator’s Audience

    • To whom is the narrator speaking?
    • Is the narrator speaking to him or herself? If not, is that audience in the same physical space as the narrator? Is the audience a single person, multiple people?

    Note the Diction (Word Choice) of the Poet

    • Be sure to look up all unfamiliar words in a dictionary.
    • What are the words' denotations and connotations?
    • Are the words concrete or abstract?

    Determine the Tone of the Poem

    • Is the poem serious? Ironic? Satiric? Contemplative? Ambiguous?
    • Identify words that set the tone.
    • Determine whether the tone changes within the poem.

    Determine the Rhythmical Devices Used by the Poet

    • What is the basic metrical pattern? Line length?
    • What is the length of the stanza?
    • What is the rhyme scheme? End rhyme? Internal rhyme?
    • Does the poet employ any other metrical devices?
    • What form does the poem take? Open or closed?

    Note Your Emotional Response to the Poem

    • How does the poem make you feel?
    • How might you convey those emotions and feelings to an audience using your voice and body language?

    Note the Use of Other Literary Devices

    • What allusions (indirect references) does the poem contain?
    • Listen to the sounds in the poem. Make note of characteristics such as assonance, alliteration, and onomatopoeia.
    • Is there any figurative language such as metaphor, simile, symbolism, imagery, irony, personification, antithesis, hyperbole, metonymy, synecdoche, allegory, paradox, understatement, or overstatement?
    • Note the use or absence of punctuation.
    • Titles are important in poetry. What does the title say about the work?

    Determine the Values of the Poem

    • Does the poet succeed in recreating his experiences within the reader? How?
    • Is the experience intensely felt by the reader?

    Perhaps the most challenging part of performing poetry, particularly those poems that rhyme, is making it sound natural. When a performer gets caught up in overly emphasizing the rhyme of a piece, it can sound unnatural, mechanical, and it tends to detract from the meaning. To prevent this from happening, you might consider physically rewriting the poem, reflecting the natural pausing spots you would like to take during performance. For example, take a look at the original written format of a monologue delivered by King Henry V from William Shakespeare's play, Henry V:

    Henry V, Act III, Scene I, by William Shakespeare

    (Appearing here as typed in the original Shakespearian work)

    Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more,

    Or close the wall up with our English dead!

    In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man

    As modest stillness and humility,

    But when the blast of war blows in our ears,

    Then imitate the action of the tiger:

    Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,

    Disguise fair nature with hard-favored rage,

    Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,

    Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit

    To his full height. On, on, you noblest English,

    Dishonor not your mothers. Now attest

    That those whom you called fathers did beget you.

    Be copy now to men of grosser blood,

    And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman,

    Whose limbs were made in England, show us here

    The mettle of your pasture. Let us swear

    That you are worth your breeding, which I doubt not,

    For there is none of you so mean and base

    That hath not noble luster in your eyes.

    I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,

    Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot.

    Follow your spirit, and upon this charge

    Cry “God for Harry, England, and Saint George!”

    Shakespeare, W., Kellogg, B., ed. (1883) Shakespeare's King Henry V. New York, Clark & Maynard. [Pdf] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/15016808/.

    The above is written in a rhythm known as iambic pentameter. A review of the poem reveals that the natural stopping point for some of the sentences/phrases don’t always land at the ends of the poems “lines.” For example, in the line “Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit To his full height,” the line ends visually after “spirit,” but the essence of the sentence’s meaning only shines when the phrasing is continued through the word “height.” So, a performer would likely want to take care not to pause between the words “spirit” and “To” but rather after the word “height.”

    Therefore, when performing poetry, a performer might consider rewriting the poem structurally (without changing the words) to better reflect how it might look if the character spoke the words as natural speech:

    Henry V, Act III, Scene I, by William Shakespeare

    (Appearing here in a re-typed/re-formatted version that reflects more natural phrasing)

    Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more -- or close the wall up with our English dead!

    In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man as modest stillness and humility.

    But when the blast of war blows in our ears, then imitate the action of the tiger:

    Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,

    Disguise fair nature with hard-favored rage,

    Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide.

    Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit to his full height.

    On, on, you noblest English,

    Dishonor not your mothers. Now attest that those whom you called fathers did beget you.

    Be copy now to men of grosser blood, and teach them how to war.

    And you, good yeoman, whose limbs were made in England,

    Show us here the mettle of your pasture.

    Let us swear that you are worth your breeding, which I doubt not, for there is none of you so mean and base that hath not noble luster in your eyes.

    I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips, straining upon the start.

    The game’s afoot.

    Follow your spirit, and upon this charge cry “God for Harry, England,

    ….and Saint George!”

    Note that the above, though it has the identical wording as the previous version, looks a bit more like a prose piece since the lines no longer seem to reveal an obvious rhythm/pattern. After analyzing a poem, consider rewriting it to reflect the phrasings and meanings more naturally. This may help you avoid falling into a sing-songy, unnatural delivery style and help your audience to understand the meaning of the poem more deeply.


    This page titled 1.6: The Poetry Genre is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Anna Martinez.

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