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.