Six Ways to Unlock a Poem

Take a foren­sic approach. Each time you read the poem you will gath­er more clues. You will need to read the whole poem six times. Even­tu­al­ly you’ll have enough clues to get the intend­ed mean­ing.

  1. Now I don’t often give way to the all-too-com­mon instinct to go straight to Google, but just this once, you should. Search for infor­ma­tion about the poem and author using the WWWWW&H check­list. That is, ask ‘Who What Where When Why and How?’ to get the social and cul­tur­al con­text. When you know a poem was writ­ten dur­ing a war, for exam­ple, you have one more clue to add to your under­stand­ing.
  2. Look at every sin­gle word as if you are trans­lat­ing an arti­cle writ­ten in a for­eign lan­guage. Word choice in poet­ry is often about dou­ble mean­ings. Pay atten­tion to the mul­ti­ple def­i­n­i­tions offered by a dic­tio­nary for each word. You can then read the poem in your own trans­la­tion and refine as you go.
  3. Look for pat­terns, motifs and themes. How? See if you can iden­ti­fy chunks of the poem. E.g. ‘this verse is talk­ing about a can­dle; this one is talk­ing about a lantern; and this one lat­er is talk­ing about a flame’. Now, when you look at the ideas, do they have a com­mon thread? (Or are they in con­trast where the poet is set­ting up an oppo­si­tion?) For exam­ple, we can link can­dles, lanterns and flames as things with heat and light known as illu­mi­na­tion. These are the motifs and sym­bols of a theme.
  4. Read the poem again. Look at the title. Does it give you a clue? For exam­ple, the title of a poem Fever 103 sug­gests the poem’s sub­ject mat­ter is about hav­ing a fever and being delu­sion­al as a result.
  5. Now it’s time to advance from the lit­er­al mean­ing to the deep­er mean­ing of the poem. How? Check each idea. Is it a sym­bol for some­thing else? For exam­ple, is the light real­ly about a light or is it about spir­i­tu­al illu­mi­na­tion? Poets write poet­ry, as opposed to prose, as a form of short­hand for com­plex ideas. Look for con­trasts. The first verse of Fever 103 asks what is pure, con­trast­ing it with hell. Puri­ty vs Sin is a com­mon dichoto­my (pair of oppo­sites). Now, can you con­nect the sym­bols used (can­dle, lantern, flame) with the dichoto­my of purity/sin? Does light rep­re­sent puri­ty? Go check the poem again.
  6. There are clues in the Punc­tu­a­tion.Read the poem aloud and pay atten­tion to what the punc­tu­a­tion sug­gests.
    • Pause for a com­ma.
    • Stop for a full stop.
    • Breathe in for a new verse which is pos­si­bly a new idea.
    • Raise your pitch for a ques­tion mark.

    Does it make more sense now? If not, try read­ing the same lines ‘run­ning on’. Poet­ry is meant to be spo­ken, but some­times it’s dif­fi­cult to fig­ure out the phras­ing. So try dif­fer­ent ways till it gives you the most mean­ing.

  7. Bonus Tip. Ask your mum.

Link to Sylvia Plath’s Poem Fever 103

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