"Poetry isn't made out of ideas; it is made out of words."--Mallarme to Degas
Prosody--Words are the medium of poetry. Therefore, the poem's meaning arises out of the sounds, shades, shapes, and arrangements of those words on the page.
Steps in Reading/Interpreting a Poem
Read the poem aloud in order to experience it on a purely sensual level. Leave all intellectual concerns aside for now. Enjoy the sounds of the words. Their music, the feel of the letters rolling off your tongue. Reading poetry is a physical act. And reading poetry aloud is essential to catching the intricate sound patterns (rhyme, alliteration, assonance, euphony or cacophony). What mood does the poem impress upon you based on these sounds?
Jot down any concrete images that present themselves throughout the work. If you read the single images side by side, what mood is evoked?
Read the poem again silently, this time going over it for noticeable formal elements. Look for patterns. Is the poem rhymed? Are the rhymes laid out in a regularized rhyme scheme? Is it written in stanzas or strophes (are all of the sections an equal number of lines or the sections made up of unequal numbers of lines? Is the poem divided into sections at all)? If the poem's rhyme scheme is regular, does it deviate from regularity at any point?
To try to understand what the poem says on the surface level, summarize the poem.
Place your summary of the poem along side your identification of the poem's formal structure (free or rhymed verse, etc). Ask yourself how the form mirrors or speaks to the poems literal meaning.
Read the poem silently again. Think about the sound, imagery, mood, form, and literal meaning of the poem and play with possible deeper issues that may emerge from the work.
CAUTION: Beware of claiming to understand a poem in its entirety. In doing so, you may loose the poem altogether. You may lose its wonder, its beauty, its potential for multi-layered meaning, and its ever-unfolding mystery.
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