How To Interpret a poem | A Few Great Tips
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You may have heard that poetry resists interpretation. It is a common phrase, but what does it mean?
It is possible to interpret a poem in many different ways. No one interpretation is more correct than any other. No one can point to a famous poem and say this is what it means, in its entirety, and if anybody disagrees then they are just wrong. That, quite simply, is not how poetry works.
Poetry contains a multiplicity of meaning. It can be difficult to understand the full scope of any single piece of poetry. People have been studying poetry for centuries, millennia, and they still find new meaning within it to this day.
How can it be possible to ‘correctly’ interpret a poem if its meaning can exist on so many different, subjective plains? Often, the struggle of interpreting a poem comes from the idea that there must be a single, unambiguously correct answer. To interpret a poem is to let go of this idea and embrace relativity.
The strength of any individual interpretation comes from how convincing it is. After you have completed your interpretation of the poem, you can check its so-called correctness by seeing if you can convince someone else that your interpretation is a good one. Is there enough textual evidence within the poem itself that supports your interpretation?
This can be difficult, but do not get discouraged. The interpretation of poetry is a practiced skill.
Here is a simple three-step method to get you started. It is a method called the three Cs: Content, Context, and Characteristics.
Step 1: Content
The first step is the easiest. Read the poem.
Go into it without expectation or fear. Do not get discouraged if you do not understand it completely from the start. Often, it takes more than one reading to fully immerse ourselves in the poem.
So, for your first reading, simply read the words. Let them soak into you. At this point, a need for understanding will just distract you from feeling.
I should have loved a thunderbird instead.
At least when spring comes they roar back again.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
(I think I made you up inside my head).
Sylvia Plath is known for her beautiful and clear imagery. From your very first reading, you have access to Plath’s incredible depth of feeling. However, you might not have access to the subtle details within the poem. You may not understand her word choice, or even know what a thunderbird is.
A good tip for your first reading is to just move past those pieces of the poem that you might not understand at first glance. Read the poem, absorb its content, and then worry about the thunderbird.
After you have finished your first reading of the poem, then you can go back and find out what a thunderbird is. It will enhance your understanding. A thunderbird is a mythological creature from Native American cultures. A thunderbird is said to create thunder and lightning by flapping its wings.
With this knowledge, you can gain a better understanding of Plath’s word choice. She uses the word ‘roar’ to enhance the image of a thunderbird returning, of roaring back, and the longing for such certainty in the inevitable return of a lover that Sylvia was trying to portray.
From this, we can see that the first step towards interpreting the poem is absorbing the content. It is feeling before understanding. In your second reading, or your third and fourth, it will be time to look at the little details that enhance your overall understanding.
These little details might be inaccessible in your very first reading. They often require knowledge of things not necessarily present within the poem itself, such as knowledge of Native American mythology. This leads us to the second step – exploring the context of the poem.
Step 2: Context
Poetry is a product of its time. Poems are created in a particular period of history by an individual person. This influences how they write poetry. For this part of interpretation, external knowledge will be required.
It is now necessary to ask three questions about the poem and discover the answers: Who was the poet? When and where was the poem written? What is the historical context of the poem?
Who was the Poet?
A poet will always put a little bit of themselves into the poem. Knowing who the poet was and what experiences they had will help you to interpret their poem.
It will be useful to ask questions about the poet. Where did they live? What was happening around them? Did anything happen in their past that influenced them to write the way that they did?
It is useful to know who Sylvia Plath was. She is often seen as the quintessential tragic poet, plagued by mental illness for her entire life and committing suicide at the young age of thirty. Knowing this can enhance your understanding of the melancholy that is threaded throughout her poetry.
As another example, let us look at contemporary poet Ocean Vuong.
To interpret Ocean Vuong’s poetry, it is useful to know that he is a Vietnamese-American who spent some of his childhood in a refugee camp before receiving asylum in the United States. This knowledge can help you interpret his poetry as many of his poems deal with themes of war, family, and immigration.
It is not just the poet’s past that you might need to know to interpret their poetry, but who they are as a person. Reading Richard Siken without acknowledging that he is a gay man would be to miss the point. Reading Dante’s Inferno without acknowledging that he was Catholic and Italian would be the surest path to confusion.
Finding out who the poet was can also frame the poetry in a different light, or cast it in shadow. How should you interpret T.S Eliot’s poetry after learning he might have held antisemitic ideals? Does Paolo Neruda’s love poetry still have the same impact after you find out that he described sexually assaulting a woman in his memoir?
Many people argue for the complete separation of the art and the artist. Ironically, one of those people was T.S Eliot. The debate is long and complex. In the end, if your goal is to simply interpret a poem, then knowing who the poet was will help you do that.
When and where was the poem written?
When the poem was written will largely impact its language. The language used by William Wordsworth in the early 19th century is subtly different from the language used by contemporary poets like Rupi Kaur and Ocean Vuong. The language used by poets, such as Geoffrey Chaucer, who lived long ago can even be completely inaccessible to modern readers. The English language has evolved significantly in the intervening centuries.
If you are new to poetry, start with newer forms of poetry and then move backward. There is no need to start with the likes of Sappho or Homer simply because they came before Audre Lorde. Reading poetry written in the language you speak every day will help you strengthen your interpretive skills as you make your way towards the foundations of poetry itself.
Where a poem was written will also affect its interpretation. The context of the poet’s country of origin and the culture in which they find themselves will influence the construction of the poem. It can even affect the form of the poem.
For instance, Haiku is originally from Japan but a Canzone is a form of Italian poetry. These poetic forms are shaped to create a different effect. Knowing these forms and where they came from can be useful in interpreting the poem.
Situating the poem in a certain time and place will help you interpret it. You will then be able to see how far you must remove yourself from your current circumstances to understand the poem. How far must you go, temporally or spatially, to reach understanding?
People in the past had different ideals than we did. People in other cultures have different beliefs than we do. Sometimes, misinterpretation of the poem stems not from a lack of knowledge but a lack of cultural understanding.
For instance, poets in the Medieval Era portray nature in poetry much differently than poets from the Victorian Era. For the Medieval mind, nature was a dangerous place that threatened their small pockets of civilization. Dante, in 1321, begins the Divine Comedy with this portrayal of nature:
Halfway along our journey to life’s end
I found myself astray in a dark wood,
Since the right way was nowhere to be found.
How hard a thing it is to express the horror
Of that wild wood, so difficult, so dense!
Even to think of it renews my terror.
Inf.1.1-9 trans. J.G Nichols
For Dante, seven hundred years ago, the forest was a deeply terrifying place where you could lose yourself forever. However, by the time we get to the 18th century, the Industrial Revolution has destroyed much of the nature that terrified Dante. So, nature becomes something precious and beautiful for the Romantic poets. William Wordsworth, the founder of the Romantic Movement, expresses his love for nature in Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey:
Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the might world.
It is the same theme – Nature. However, the interpretation of it will be vastly different because the poets belonged to different contexts. Not just cultural, but also historical.
What is the historical context of the poem?
Poets can be part of a larger literary movement, like historical poets like William Wordsworth who spearheaded English Romanticism. Literary movements share themes and ideologies that influence their poetry. If you understand the literary movement, then interpreting the poem will become easier.
For example, the Beat Generation. They were prominent during the Post-War era in the USA. Poets like Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Gregory Corso all wrote in a similar manner befitting their contribution to the Beat Generation. They wrote about non-conformity and their desire for a spontaneous, hedonistic lifestyle. Their poetry is rhythmic, sometimes maddeningly so, as seen in this opening line from Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’:
I saw the greatest minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the black streets at dawn looking for an angry fix angelheaded hipsters burning for ancient heavenly connected to the starry dynamo in the machinery of the night.
With little attention paid to grammar or punctuation, the poem rambles on for the 112 lines in that same panicked, feverish tone. This rhythm is shared among many poets of the Beat Generation. Armed with the knowledge of that particular context, it becomes simple to interpret any poem written by the Beat poets as being a post-war expression of madness, frustration, and a longing for life to mean something more than it does.
You can apply this method to many poets that belong to literary movements. Such as the Modernism movement of T.S Eliot and Ezra Pound who wanted to subvert expectations and introduce unreliable truth or narrative. Or, the poets of the Harlem Renaissance, like Langston Hughes, who share characteristics and a shared response to racism, Jim Crow laws, and World War One.
Step 3: Characteristics
Finally, after content and context have been attended to, it is time to look at the characteristics of the poem. This is all about how the poem is constructed, and why. This step is a good place to use your analytical brain because it’s all about the objective parts used to make up the poem.
Identifying the major theme in a poem will go a long way in interpreting it. We have already seen how poets explore themes of nature, mental illness, love, war, and rebellion. Finding the core upon which the poem orbits can help you unravel the entire thing.
People might disagree on what the major themes of a poem are. Is William Wordsworth talking about nature or god? Is Sylvia Plath speaking about love or depression? The answer can be both, neither, or something else entirely.
These big words, these transcendental signifiers, like War, Love, and God can be complex even poems within themselves. Exploring the major themes of a poem will help you interpret the poem and it will also help you interpret the world around it.
There are many devices that poets can use to create complex meaning. Having a good understanding of these devices will help you interpret the poems. There are quite a lot of these and they can be used in infinite ways.
The basics are figures of speech. These differ from the literal speech in significant ways. They include metaphors, similes, hyperbole, and personification
Poetic devices, literary devices, and figures of speech are like the nuts and bolts of poetry. All these different tools can be used by a poet in the construction of their poetry. Knowing what the poem is made from will help you deconstruct it.
Types of Poetry
There are many different kinds of poetry. Each has its unique history and reasoning behind its construction. Some kinds of poetry are strict in their construction.
It is good to remember that free-form poetry is relatively modern. It has only become common in the last century or so to write poetry without any adherence to some kind of pre-existing literary structure or strict rhyme scheme.
Before modernism, before the free verse, poetry conformed to strict rules of construction. Examples of these include the haiku, limerick, sonnet, and canzone. Other examples can be found here and here.
About The Author
Kai Lotter is a writer, poet, and artist. She is a postgraduate student at the University of Witswatersrand, studying English Literature and specialising in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Her work has been featured in the bi-annual Poetry Potion journal. Her poem “Wolf Girl” will be featured in the upcoming anthology entitled “Yesterdays and Imagined Realities: An Anthology of South African Poetry.” Her work explores themes of gender expression, mental health and what it means to be human.