A description of how to read a poem critically, followed by a sample reading of Dorothy Parker’s ‘Resume’.
Many people believe that critically analyzing a poem takes away much of the joy associated with its reading. It pulls the whole work apart, they say, and it ends up losing its meaning. However, I would like to defend the opposite view. Analyzing a poem enhances your enjoyment of it. You become more aware of the poem’s meaning both for you personally and according to what the poet is trying to say. You learn to think about poetry, in stead of just receiving the words passively.
Poetry is perhaps the genre of literature where the opportunity to think is greatest. A poem might mean anything to anybody. That’s what makes it fun to read and analyze.
The first step is to read the poem through at your normal reading pace. Is there anything that strikes you immediately as you read it? What is your immediate emotional (or non-emotional) reaction to it? Is it sad, funny, or unemotional? Poetry is often emotional. The poet has very little space to express his or her ideas, so emotion is used to trigger an association with the intended message of the poem.
Read the poem through more carefully. Are there any additional ideas or thoughts in the poem itself which strike you? What is the poem about? What is the literal subject-matter of the poem? Does the poet write about the sea, a field, a woman, anything else?
After reading and thinking about the poem for a second time, look at the title again. Is there anything strange about the title? Does the title correlate well with the subject-matter of the poem? Does it puzzle you in any way? Is there any contrast with the poem itself (such as the title ‘Blood’ for a poem about love)?
Now it is time to look at poetic devices. These include things such as imagery, metaphors, structure, rhyme scheme and rhythm.
An image used in a poem is anything that the poet makes you see. The scenes in the poem are its imagery. For example a poet might describe a field or a beach. Imagery can also include physical things, such as a rose, a razor, or an animal. The images are linked to the theme of the poem – the message the poet is trying to get across. Look for images in the poem and what they say to you as a reader and according to the subject-matter of the poem.
Metaphors are images that stand for ideas. A razor might stand for pain or death while the sun stands for life and a rose for love. Look again at the images you identified and what ideas they might stand for in the poem. A poet might use an entirely unorthodox metaphor, such as a rose with a worm in it, which might stand for poisoned love.
What a poem looks like on a page is its structure. How many stanza’s are there? How long are the lines? What is the central idea in each line or stanza? Look at how the subject-matter is structured throughout the poem. Which ideas are mentioned first, and what does the poem end with? Are there any contrasts?
The rhyme scheme of a poem can take several forms. In modern poetry there is often no rhyme scheme. The rhyme scheme affects the rhythm and structure of the poem. Look at the end of each line. Which words rhyme? Can you attach any meaning to the rhyme scheme or rhyming words? Rhyme is also used to achieve emphasis. What ideas are emphasized through rhyming words? In modern poetry rhyme scheme is much less rigid than in more traditional poetic forms. Many modern poems (such as those of Walt Whitman) lack both rhyme scheme and any significant structure.
The rhythm of a poem is the way that it sounds when you read it. Here it is a good idea to read the poem aloud. Are there any words or rhythmic patterns that recur through the poem? What meaning can you attach to the identified rhythm?
Finally consider the theme of the poem. In light of all the above investigations, what is the deeper meaning of the poem? What is the poet trying to say? What is his message and why do you think he wrote the poem in the first place?
As a wrapping up exercise, consider what the poem means to you personally. Is there anything in the message of the poem that you can take with you in life?
EXAMPLE OF A POETIC DISCUSSION
I have recently discovered Dorothy Parker, a modern poetess with a deliciously satirical outlook on life (judging from her work). For discussion purposes I have chosen ‘Resume’, for both its brevity and its poetic devices.
Read this poem through once:
Resume (by Dorothy Parker)
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
My immediate reaction upon a first reading of the poem was to laugh. If I examine my reasons for laughing, it seems to lie in the contrast between the last line and what precedes it. There seems to be a futilistic view of suicide in the poem.
The subject-matter of the poem is different forms of suicide and problems associated with them. It hurts to cut your wrists, drowning is unpleasantly wet, some ways of commiting suicide fail easily or are difficult to obtain. So in view of the difficulty of exiting life, it is easier to give up and put up with the difficulty involved in living in the first place.
Upon the second reading of the poem, I realize that I not only found the contrast amusing, but also the truth of it. The complications associated with suicide are so numerous. The irony is that life may be rather less painful than death, even though the opposite is generally assumed to be true. Staying where you are is the easiest option.
The title of the poem is puzzling. A resume is normally something you draw up to give information about yourself. In the poem ‘resume’ could be the resume of the speaker, who might have experimented with suicide. The conclusion of the experiments is drawn in the last line. It might also merely be a ‘resume’ of the nature of suicide and life itself. The resume in this case gives information about the subject matter: suicide. So the title might refer to the speaker as a person or the suject of the poem as an idea.
There are seven images in the poem: razors, rivers, acids, drugs, guns, nooses and gas. These are all ways of commiting suicide. All these images can therefore be metaphors not only of death, but also of pain. The metaphors are especially of pain, since the implication is that suicide is painful. Therefore you are likely to abort the attempt before achieving the goal of death.
Concerning structure, the poem consists of two sentences. Each sentence spans over four lines of the poem. The first ssentence concerns suicide attempts that are physically uncomfortable. The second seems a little more geared towards suicide attempts that fail in some way and therefore in failing to give you death, force you to the conclusion, which is life.
Every second line rhymes and all rhyming words are verbs connected to why suicide attempts might fail. In the second sentence ‘give’ in line 6 and ‘live’ in line 8 rhyme. This is significant, because the noose that gives, and therefore the suicide that fails and forces life, combines with all the other suicide references in the poem. In this way, all the suicide attempts rather point to living than to dying.
The rhyme causes the rhythm. The poem is very rhythmic and almost up-beat. This contrasts strongly with the grim subject-matter. Perhaps this says something about the importance of laughter in this world. The poem is also very short. This may signify that life is short. Therefore attempting suicide is also not a very worthy option. Waiting to die is less painful and also not very long.
The theme, in the light of the above, concerns how grim modern life has become. The poet suggests antidotes to this grimness. One of the suggested antidotes is suicide, but this is so infected with difficulties that the difficulty of life in view of its brevity seems small by comparison. The ultimate antidote for depression and grimness is laughter. Laugh at suicide, laugh at life, because you have been born and you have to cope with what comes your way regardless.
The poem teaches me the lesson to take life less seriously. As adults we have all forgotten our natural childlike ability to laugh and have fun. It is okay to laugh at life and pain. That is what keeps us healthy. Perhaps that is also what keeps us from suicide and giving up altogether. The poem advises to rather give up on death and live, than give up on life. Laughter is the easiest and most pleasant way out. It is best to enjoy the brief years we have here, rather than hurt ourselves even more by trying to end it prematurely.
To read poetry critically, rather than just on the surface, can be a very rewarding experience. I hope that the above has proved this.
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