Friday, January 30, 2009

Poetry Tips: Interpreting a Poem for the Timid

When I was in school there was always that moment in the classroom where my English teachers would say “What do you think this poem means? There are no wrong answers!” and of course when I’d raise my hand to give my opinion I was always told “no, that’s not what it’s about…” I have never understood this trait in English teachers.

So for those of you who are new to interpreting poetry let me tell you this much: If you enjoy a poem, be happy with it.

After that, it is a matter of figuring out what the poet is trying to say by means of their language or references. Some poets say exactly what they mean, others reference great literature or moments in history. Short of utilizing a dictionary or searching your shelves for former literary greats you may find better luck using on-line resources such as The Poetry Foundation or for insight into poems you find difficult to understand—if they have the particular poet within their collection. These sites feature essays on poets and can break down the poem into what the poet was referring to. Then there is also the plethora of books presenting criticism of particular poets who can help you understand a poet whose work you enjoy but don’t always “get.” These are often available in the library and if not, you can always ask the library staff if they can order some for you.

Then there are poets who throw in words from other languages within the frame of their poem and you may need to use an on-line dictionary to translate those words into English. If you don’t have regular use of the internet there is always your local library which should have various dictionaries that translate other languages into English.

The bottom line is to try to understand a poem you find interesting and difficult or frustrating. It doesn’t mean you have to know the literary greats, be able to speak French, etc., all it means is that you liked the poem enough to want to figure it out. The more you figure out, the wider your repertoire in poetry can become.

I, myself, enjoy Pablo Neruda because his poems are presented in both English and Spanish so that I can try to read the original, beautiful language but then read it in English for a full understanding.

For any regular readers who have any particular resources they know of that I haven’t mentioned specifically, please add them in the comments section for the benefit of all, and thanks.

Thanks for stopping by, please visit again on Monday for another featured site…

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