(understanding poetry? - see bottom of page)

Poetry - the oldest of the four literary genres - largely owes its impact on its readers to its rhythm and sound. Thus the structure of a poem may mean much more than the mere presentation of a line of thought; in fact, most often the structure itself reflects (or is part of) the meaning of a poem. To this end any poem should be read out aloud as the rhythm and sound need to be felt ‘bodily’ by the reader to bring about the tone.

The individual words and their syllables are pronounced in certain rhythmic patterns called  feet of which the four most common are:

iamb's [unstressed-stressed];
trochee's [stressed-unstressed];
anapest's [u-u-s]; and
dactyl’s [s-s-u].

Several feet constitute a meter making up a line
(e.g. iambic pentameter [five iambs = u-s, u-s, u-s, u-s, u-s].

The lines may be end-stopped complete sentences, clauses or phrases that constitute a full meaning in themselves; or run-on lines that complete the meaning of the previous line(s).
   Very often a fixed number of lines in a particular meter (or elaborate mix of meters) is organised in stanzas with an elaborate rhyme scheme (as in the Shakespearean sonnet’s three quatrains (four lines) and a couplet (two) rhyming abab cdcd efef  gg).
   Other types of rhymes are alliteration in which two or more words in close proximity share the same initial consonant(s), (e.g. ‘the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle’).
   Alliteration may be subdivided into
              a) consonance (ex. ‘live-love’), or
              b) assonnance, (ex.‘The moan was blown away and sewn
                                              /Into the night of serve-you-right’)
in which a vowel sound is repeated.


In the following the different figures of speech are arranged according to growing complexity, starting with one t e n o r (principal subject) equalling one v e h i c l e (subject of comparison or secondary subject):

denotation    a word's primary meaning (ex. "horse")
connotation  a word's secondary or accompanying meanings (ex. "steed")

SIMILE   "My love's like a dove" (parallel between love/the beloved one and a dove)

METAPHOR         "My love is a dove" (total correspondence between love and dove)
 - metonymy          "To fire wounds" (poem for poet = result for maker)
 - metalepsis         "To read Shakespeare" (poet for poem - the name of Shakespeare
                                instead of his works)
 - synecdoche        "He was all eyes" (pars pro toto)
 - oxymoron           "O Death in Life" (a paradox - contradiction)
 - mixed metaphor "To take arms against a sea of trouble"
(tenor and vehicle taken from two figurative spheres, not in harmony with each other)
 - dead metaphor   "Thick as a brick" (the expression - although very accurate and
                                 well put - has been worn down by frequent use)

IMAGE (emblem) sensory expression which cannot be conceived in abstract concepts

SYMBOL  concrete, archetypal, sensory image ("blood", "bread", "water")

                                                   - of concrete things: tree, dog, etc.
                                                   - of abstract concepts: Hope, Love, etc. (NB capitals)

ALLUSION  a hint (perhaps part of a quotation) intended to evoke a specific memory
                    or response in the reader

ALLEGORY  abstract concepts personified in a fully developed story of Man's moral

MYTH          inexplicable powers surrounding Man are explained by personifying
                     them and making up a story; thus truth beyond logical access is explained

Understanding poetry is a horse of a different color.  If your reading and presentation of a poem is limited to mere mechanics, you won't have analyzed it, let alone shown that you have understood it.
   To do so you must apply your findings to the contents.  Most likely, not only the tone of the poem, but also the theme as well as the special point that the poet is trying to make will come out and be emphasized in the diction, the specific expression chosen by the poet.  The sound of the words should go hand in hand with the inherent point.
Very often you can follow the poet's train of thought as he goes from image to image which in turn is reflected in the vocabulary.
  Therefore, don't go mechanically through the entire list above every time you read a poem, but make the necessary observations to explain how the poem works.

The difference between poetry and prose lies in the poem's dense economy of words.  The concern for rhythm and sound may ensure a special, even magic, ring to the lines that makes the reader remember them.
   Thus poetry is often quoted whereas very few people know paragraphs of prose by heart (perhaps with the exception of "The Declaration of Independence" and such).
   What remains is that language may be more than a means of communication when it assumes esthetic qualities that will make you think of it as music.  For that reason poems are music in themselves, and good poems do not need music to enhance their inherent qualities, in fact, they may lose some if the composer misses s shade.

Erik Moldrup