Poetry essay: Three ways to look at poetry: what it says, what it means, and what it sounds like

There are a lot of ways to look at poetry, but three ways that a person can think about when trying to decide what they think of a poem are:

what it says,

what it means,

and what it sounds like.

 

What is says

Looking at what a poem says means looking at a poem literally.  It means looking at what it actually says and taking that at face value, without looking for underlying meanings or symbolism, and without looking deeper.  It is a “what you see, is what you get” way of seeing things.

The idea here is to examine the literal expression of the poem.  As an example, look at the following poem:

And there upon the snow did shine,
the light of night when stars did climb,
as wind did blow through trees of pine,
as stars did mark the night’s own time.

In this poem, literally, there is a nighttime winter scene.  There is snow on the ground and light from the stars is shining on it.  There is wind in the pine trees and time is passing.

Looking at what a poem says, a reader would take this scene literally.  They would try to decide what they thought of the scene the poem creates.

What it means

Looking at what a poem means, means looking at the symbolism and metaphor in a poem, or looking deeper within it.  It means trying to figure out the actual intent of a poem, which may differ from the literal expression.

Again, a person can examine the poem above.  There are different ways to interpret it.

If a reader went the literal route, and thought the poem meant what it said, they would see a winter scene.  They would understand that the poem takes place in a place where there is snow.  They would also know that the night was clear because the light and stars could be seen.  They would know that it was windy.  Additionally, they would understand that the poem was in a place where there were pine trees.  They would also understand the passage of time.

Looking at the poem this way, the reader would get a definite sense of place in the poem.  They would be seeing a certain place that differs from others.

If a person thought this way, they would be seeing the poem literally, but would be looking deeper within it.  They could go a step further and see more meaning in the words.

For example, a reader might think that because the stars could be seen, that there was not much light pollution in the scene in the poem.  A reader might see this as an indication that part of the intent of the poem was to say light pollution was a negative thing.

A reader could do this same thing with other ideas presented in the poem.  By doing so, a reader might interpret a message in the literal words of the poem.

In addition to thinking about what the poem meant literally, a reader might also look for symbolism in the poem.  They might see the poem as a metaphor for something else.

One interpretation might be to see this poem as a metaphor for surgery (that was not its original intent, just one interpretation).

In this interpretation, a person is having surgery.  They are covered with a white sheet before it begins (the snow).  They are in room with lights above (And there upon the snow did shine, the light).  The lights are lifted above them (when stars did climb).  The surgery is seen as an ominous thing, and so the light is “the light of night”.

The wind blowing through trees of pine is the ventilation system in the surgery room.  The person is still conscious and can hear the air moving through the medical equipment (trees of pine).

The surgery is seen as ominous by the person having it.  The lights in the room are there for the duration of the surgery.  The lights mark the surgery’s time, rather than the person’s (as stars did mark the night’s own time).

If a reader thought of this interpretation of the poem, they could examine what they thought about it and decide how they felt about the poem.

What it sounds like

The poem used here was written with a specific form.  It is one stanza.  Each line is written in iambic tetrameter.  Lines one and three rhyme and lines two and four rhyme.  A reader of the poem should be able to sense the form, even if they did not know what it was.

Additionally, the poem was written with an attempt to sound poetic.  The idea of light, night, and stars were all used to make the poem sound poetic.

A reader reading the poem, might look at it just from the perspective of what it sounded like.  They might ignore the literal words as well as any potential symbolism and just listen to how it sounds.  In this case, the poem has flow and rhyme with a poetic sound.

The three different views

When a person tries to decide what they think of a poem, they can look at it from one or more of the perspectives above.  This raises some ideas.

First, there might the question of which view was the best.  Should the quality of a poem be evaluated based on its literal words, its meaning, or its sound?  Different people will have different perspectives.

Second, there is the idea of combining the different views.  A person could look at a poem’s meaning and sound together for example.  This would give a different view than if they were looked at separately.

Third, is the question of what happens if a reader likes one of the views but not another one.  For example, what if a reader liked the way this poem sounded, but didn’t like any of the interpretations of its meaning.  Could a person still like a poem if they didn’t like what it meant?  Could a poem be liked only for its sound or literal words?

 

When a reader thinks about what they think of a poem, there are different ways they can see it.  If a reader considers these ways, and tries to look at a poem from each of them, they can gain a better appreciation for a poem and for their own perspective on it.

A poem with an explanation: a letter

A handwritten letter
with a struggle for expression
and a sense of importance
written with white lead
on white paper.

 

The first aspect of this poem is the title: “a letter”.  “a” was chosen rather than “the” to have a sense of indefiniteness.  This letter is seemingly one of a group and does not at first stand out.  Both “a” and “letter” were not capitalized to express a sense of subtlety and meekness.  Both of these imply that in some sense, the letter is not meant to stand out

The first line mentions that the letter is handwritten.  This is to evoke an image that has some sense of past: the letter is not typed on a computer.  Second, it is meant to suggest to the reader the image of someone sitting at desk writing in long hand.  Thirdly, even though the image created may be one of someone writing a letter, the line indicates that the letter has already been written.  The letter is already finished.

The second and third lines go together to create a mood.  The letter writer had trouble finding words to get across the importance of what they were writing.  The words “struggle” and “sense” are meant to impart a sense of emotion.  It is as if the letter writer was feeling somewhat overwhelmed as they wrote.  Another point is that knowing the tone of the letter implies that the letter has been read, however, it does not indicate who has read it, a separate reader, or the letter writer.  It is unclear whether the poem is describing the thoughts of the letter writer, or the impression of the letter reader.

The fourth and fifth lines go together and have literal and metaphorical implications.  In a literal sense the letter writer wrote something that a reader would not be able to read: white text on white paper.  Secondly, the letter writer used a pencil to write as indicated by the word “lead”.  This adds to the difficulty that a reader would have in reading the letter because pencil lead would be lighter than ink and would fade.  In a metaphorical sense, a letter written with white lead on white paper is meant to imply that the letter writer was hesitant to communicate: they wanted to express something, but they were afraid of what the receipt of the expression would imply.  Secondly, “lead” is meant to imply heaviness as the word “lead” in “pencil lead” is pronounced the same as the metal “lead”.  This idea relates to the struggle for expression that the writer was having.

The image in this poem is of an emotion where there is difficulty and hesitancy to communicate it.  It meant to illustrate this broader idea.

A poem with an explanation: Illuminate the darkness

Poems are generally like art in that each viewer (or reader) can interpret the poem in different ways.  Often no explanation of the poem is provided by the poet.  While this is beneficial, it can also be beneficial to understand the poet’s perspective of a poem.

The following has two sections.  The first section has a poem with no explanation.  Please read the poem a few times to develop a personal perspective.  After the poem, an explanation is given. Please read the explanation to understand the poet’s intention.

The poem:

Illuminate the darkness

Darkness fills like a cloud that has no form.

At the point,
lights shine,

but in a way,
do not illuminate the darkness.

Nearby,
lights shine,

but in a way,
do not illuminate the darkness.

In the distance,
lights shine,

but in a way,
do not illuminate the darkness.

Closely,
a light shines,

and it,

illuminates the darkness.

The explanation:

This poem is a dual-level poem.  The first level is the literal level – what the poem is actually describing.  The second level is the metaphorical level – what the poem is conveying.  The poem is meant to be read at the second level.

The first level of this poem is a very simple idea: the Earth in space.  It references the Earth in space with the Sun, stars and planets.  In a literal sense, this is what the poem is describing.  The poem, however, is not meant to be read at this level.  In fact, reading the poem at this level, may make the poem seem less impactful.  This level though is used as a tool to implement the second level of the metaphor – in this case, a person overcoming a problem.  The idea of light illuminating darkness is the main metaphor used.  This is the level that the poem is meant to be read at.

Poem title: Illuminate the darkness

This title was chosen for three reasons.  First, it has an interesting symbolism.  The idea of illuminating darkness can be very symbolic, as well as literal.  Second, it has a “poetic” sound.  Having a certain sound in poems often makes an important difference.  Third, because of this poetic sound, the title was repeated in the poem.  In writing the poem, the repeat of the phrase in the poem inspired the title, rather than the title inspiring the repeat of the phrase.

First line: Darkness fills like a cloud that has no form.

The first line of the poem is set apart from the rest.  It is written as a single line.  This first line is meant to have a certain “darkness” of tone that is represented by the actual darkness being described.  In the literal sense, this line is describing the dark space that is around the Earth.  The darkness fills the space, but at the same time, has no form.  This line is in a sense describing the place.  In the metaphorical sense, this line introduces the problem that is being faced.  No specific problem is mentioned, but the problem is represented by darkness that fills.  It is meant to represent a significant problem.

From this point the four stanzas follow a similar four line form.  The first line describes a location.  Four locations are used: at the point, nearby, in the distance and closely.  The second line is the same for three of the stanzas: lights shine.  In the last stanza it reads “a light shines”.  The third line also takes two forms.  It reads “but in a way” in the first three stanzas and reads “and it” in the last stanza.

First stanza:

At the point,
lights shine,

but in a way,
do not illuminate the darkness.

In the first stanza the location is “at the point”.  In the literal sense, this “point” is the Earth itself.  In the metaphorical sense, this location is signifying the turning point in how a person is facing a problem.  It is a turning point, because up to this point the “darkness” of the problem was over the person and not illuminated.  This time period is described in this stanza and the next two.  In a literal sense, the first stanza could read:

On the Earth,
there are electrical lights,
but these lights,
do not diminish the darkness of space around Earth.

In a metaphorical sense, this first stanza is describing an internal type of help, something that the person realizes internally.  At first, it seems to provide some assistance, but it does not overcome the problem.

The first two lines of the stanza are set apart from the second two.  The first two lines provide a situation and some hope, but the second two lines, indented for separation and to cause a pause, are introduced with the word “but” and show that the hope did not solve the problem.

Second stanza:

Nearby,
lights shine,

but in a way,
do not illuminate the darkness.

In the second stanza, the literal meaning could be read:

The planets in the solar system,
give off light,
but this light,
does not diminish the darkness of space around Earth.

In this stanza, the metaphorical meaning to the location “nearby” is that since the person could not solve their problem with an internal discovery, they look “nearby” for help, or in some sense to help that is readily available.  Similarly though, this does not solve the problem.

Third stanza:

In the distance,
lights shine,

but in a way,
do not illuminate the darkness.

In the third stanza, the literal meaning could be read:

The stars,
give off light,
but this light,
does not diminish the darkness of space around Earth.

In this stanza, the metaphorical meaning to the location “in the distance” is that since the person could not find help to their problem by looking near to themselves, they take the opposite end and look far away.  Similarly though, this does not solve the problem.

These first three stanzas describe a time period up to the turning point the person will face.  Up until this point, the person has not found help to their problem.  All of these stanzas, in a literal sense, describe how the light of the lights on Earth, the stars and the planets are unable to illuminate the darkness of space that is around the Earth.

At first glance it may seem that the lights of the lights on Earth, the stars and the planets are unable to illuminate the darkness of space around Earth because they are insufficient.  This is not the case.  They are unable to illuminate the darkness that is around the Earth, not because of their weakness, but because of the strength of something else.

Fourth stanza:

Closely,
a light shines,

and it,

illuminates the darkness.

This stanza could be written literally as:

The Sun,
gives off light,
and it,
does diminish the darkness of space around Earth.

This final stanza is purposely kept with the preceding three.  The change is meant to be surprising.  The reader is not intended to expect it.

The location “closely” at first may seem strange to the reader.  Up until this stanza, the locations have been progressively getting farther away: at the point, then nearby, then in the distance.  This location may seem strange in that it is closer than “in the distance” but it is unclear whether it is closer than “nearby” or not.  This was done intentionally to symbolize that help to the problem was not in a place that was looked for.  It was close and in some sense overlooked.  In a literal sense, closely represents the Sun.  It is closer than the stars and some planets to Earth, but not as close as some other planets to the Earth.

The second line in the stanza is also an abrupt change.  The three preceding stanzas described “lights”.  This stanza describes “a light”.  The intention was to signify that there is something different about it.  In a literal sense, the Sun is one light, while the other lights are many lights.

The third line continues the change.  Rather than having the negative word “but” there is the positive word “and”.  Additionally, the preceding three third lines were vague with the phrase “in a way”.  The literal idea is that the lights have some effect on the darkness, but do not overtake it.  The line in this stanza is not vague: it says “and it”.  The literal idea is that the light of the Sun has a much larger impact than the other lights.

The last line of this stanza is indented more than any other line.  This is done so to signify its importance.  This line literally describes how the light of the Sun illuminates the darkness of space that is around the Earth.  Metaphorically, this line is on the other side of the turning point.  The person has found hope for their problem that will actually solve their problem.

 

This poem takes something literal: the Earth in space with various lights affecting the darkness around it, and uses it to describe something metaphorical, a person overcoming a problem.  The poem follows a path of the person failing to overcome their problem by trying different things, until they look in a new place and find hope to solve their problem.

This blog entry has been an example of a poem with an explanation.  Hopefully learning the poet’s intent of the poem has provided additional meaning to it.