Dr. Rampey's Quick and Dirty Guide to Reading Poetry:

What No One Else Will Tell You!


3 Simple Rules of the Road of Poetry

Some of my colleagues might really frown on this, but I've found that poetry is an obstacle for many students because they lack a basic technique for making sense of it. They've heard all about the sound and the rhythm and the imagery and all that good stuff. And yeah, yeah, that's important, but it has to come later. It has to come after you figure out what the darned thing means in the first place. Contrary to what you might think, you already have the skills to do that. Here are three quick tips that might take the mystery out of reading poetry.

Absolute Rule #1:

Do NOT read line by line! I've found that this is the biggest mistake readers can make. Here's an example of the first few lines of Hamlet's famous soliloquy: To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die: to sleep.
This is what many students who read poetry line by line are hearing in their heads when they read that: To be, or not to be, that is the question: Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer. The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Or to take arms against a sea of troubles. And by opposing end them. To die: to sleep. For sure, that doesn't make any sense at all. So, let's try something different. Let's IGNORE the line breaks. Instead, pay careful attention to the punctuation, and read SENTENCE BY SENTENCE rather than line by line. Then what you hear in your head will sound more like this: To be, or not to be, that is the question. Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them. To die: to sleep. Doesn't that sound better? Now at least we have a prayer of making sense out of this. Let's go on to the next tip...

Rule #2:

Remember that in poetry you often will encounter words out of their normal word order -- just as you do in some song lyrics. Here are some familiar examples:

ORIGINAL LYRIC IN NORMAL ORDER
My country, 'tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing.
My country, I sing of thee, of thee, sweet land of liberty.
'Round and 'round the cobbler's bench,
The monkey chased the weasel.
The monkey chased the weasel 'round and 'round the cobbler's bench.
From this valley they say you are going. They say you are going [away] from this valley.
Mind the music and the step,
And with the girls be handy!
Mind the music and the step, and be handy with the girls!
All up and down the whole creation,
Sadly I roam...
I roam sadly all up and down the whole creation...
In Dixie Land I'll take my stand... I'll take my stand in Dixie Land...
A wonderful Savior is Jesus my Lord,
A wonderful Savior to me;
He hideth my soul in the cleft of the rock,
Where rivers of pleasure I see.
Jesus my Lord is a wonderful Savior, a wonderful Savior to me; he hideth my soul in the cleft of the rock where I see rivers of pleasure.
His movements were graceful;
All girls he could please.
His movements were graceful; he could please all girls.
So, you get the idea. Remember that the normal word order you are used to is SUBJECT-VERB-OBJECT (or S-V-O). If a sentence is puzzling you, look for the subject and the verb, and re-phrase the sentence in it's normal order. Let's try it with another line from Hamlet: This to me
In dreadful secrecy impart they did,
And I with them the third night kept the watch;...

So, we have...
They did impart this to me in dreadful secrecy,... Now, let's do the same to the second clause of the sentence. The subject is "I", the verb is "kept", the object is "the watch", and the rest of the sentence falls in place. So, our whole sentence reads: They did impart this to me in dreadful secrecy, and I kept the watch with them the third night. This really does get pretty easy after you do it a few times. Just remember that your mind wants to hear S-V-O, so give it what it wants. Now there's just one more thing...

Rule #3:

Don't let single words, or omissions of words, trip you up. You will come across some unusual words or familiar words that are used in unusual ways. When you're reading, don't move on to the next sentence until you know what each word means. Often in literature textbooks, footnotes or marginal notes will help you out. Use them! Other times, you may have to resort to a dictionary. Let's take a few examples from above. Remember Hamlet's To be, or not to be... So, what's this "to be" anyway? Think about it for a moment. What could you substitute? If you be, you are -- right? If you are, you "exist" or "live." Now, that gives you a better idea what Hamlet is wondering about. How about "From this valley they say you are going" which we re-worded to read, "They say you are going [away] from this valley"? We did have to add "away" to make it sound normal to us. So, if something doesn't sound right even after you have put it in S-V-O order, try adding something. Sometimes, you'll see some just plain unusual words or usages. For example, the first song lyrics in the table above: My country, 'tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing.
So, what's the deal with this "'tis" and "thee"? No one talks like that! No, they don't any longer, but they did once, and it's just a fact that you will see some older forms and usages in poetry, so you need to get used to them. The"'tis" (also occurring in the first Hamlet quotation) is simply an old contraction of "it is. So, there we have "it is of thee I sing", or, in more normal order we would omit the "it is" anyway: "I sing of thee". And "thee"? Well, if you've spent much time in church, you know that "thee" is an older form of "you". Still, "I sing of you" just doesn't sound quite right to us. So, again you need to think a little bit and try a substitution. How about "about"? Then we'd have, "I sing about you", and, as we know, that makes perfect sense in the context of the song. Finally, there may be words you just don't know or words that are used in ways that are not familiar to you. In the second song lyric in the table above, what's a "cobbler" around whose bench the money is chasing the weasel? How about in the second quotation from Hamlet when the speaker says he will keep "the watch"? Um, "watch" -- wrist watch? Probably not. So, these are cases in which you might need a dictionary.

Last Words:

Just remember the three skills you already have:

Now, you can go on to learn about sound and rhythm and imagery and all the other devices that make reading poetry such a rich experience!

I've put together a study version of William Cullen Bryant's "A Forest Hymn" that encourages a reading of the poem according to the method suggested here.  If you would like to see it, you can take a look at the following link:

"A Forest Hymn"

If you have questions, comments, or suggestions about this page, please get in touch with me at:

Dr. Rampey
LRampey@warrior.mgc.peachnet.edu


If you have a minute, please feel free to visit my homepage or my Table of Contents.

Thanks for taking a look at my poetry page!
I hope you enjoyed it!

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