Interpreting poems – how to do it?


Poems to interpret are cool! And this is not only said by me as an old literature freak, but also by many thousands of other people my age. Have you ever seen a video of a poetry slam?? Poetry is in right now – although or maybe because it is not always easy to understand and needs interpretation. You want to be able to work better with poetry and score points with your interpretations in front of friends, fellow students, or profs? Then do not click away now! Because in this article, I’ll introduce you to the tactics literary scholars use to interpret their poems! And it’s not as complicated as you might expect!

1. Linguistic and factual clarification

When interpreting and analyzing a poem, you should first make sure that you understand it. Are there any foreign words? Words that make no sense in this context because they were used differently a few hundred years ago? Ancient words you have never heard before? Then look it up right at the beginning!

You understand all the words? Then read the poem again carefully before the actual interpretation. Are there any allusions that catch your eye?? If something sounds familiar to you, as if you have read it somewhere similar before? Or does the author even write: "as written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe"?? Mark this! If you have time, do some research to find out what exactly the author is referring to.

2. In-text pragmatics

Now let’s get down to the nitty gritty! Namely, now comes the first real step of poem analysis interpretation. Step 1 was just preliminary work. Now you may analyze the communication situation. So who is addressing whom? And where? And about what? And when? To be able to answer these questions, there are some points you should consider.

  • Pay attention to the pronouns! Does it say "my shirt," "your anger," or "his house"?
  • Look at the verb forms! Imperatives are especially important! ("Show!")
  • Are there verbs of perception? Is something seen, smelled or touched?
  • Find verbs that refer to emotional and cognitive processes? Is someone thinking or pondering or believing in something?
  • Note the time: Is the speaker talking about the present?? Or yet about the past? Or maybe even about the future?

All this gives helps you to decode the communication situation – and this is essential if you want to write a successful interpretation.

You now know who is talking where to whom? Then we come to another W-question: How? To answer this question, there are 6 functions, of which at least one is always true. This way you can characterize the communication situation even better.

  1. The Emotive function: this function is directed towards the speaker. If it says "I feel bad", the speaker is talking about himself.
  2. The phatic function: through the statement a contact is established. For example, a professor may ask at the beginning of the lesson: "Can you all hear me??" to attract the attention of the students.
  3. Referential function: Sometimes you want to say something about the context. For example, a commercial might say, "This is especially useful in bad weather!"
  4. The conative function: the speaker addresses the receiver and may say, "Don’t you understand??"
  5. Metalinguistic function: Here the message is directed to the so-called code: "This is how it should be done!"
  6. The poetic function: sometimes the text or the statement refers to itself.

By the way, it may be that a statement cannot be clearly assigned to a function. Often the functions occur as mixtures.

3. Semantics

In the third step of the interpretation you direct your view to intratextual relations with each other and at Tropes.

The main point is to identify repetitions in the text in order to be able to read the content from them. For example, the words "eye, glasses, out of focus" might appear in the poem. Then it is probably about the subject of "bad vision".

Tropes are rhetorical stylistic devices that differ from other rhetorical figures because they refer to the semantics of the sentence, that is, the content of the text. Which there are? Here is a small list with a few examples!

  • Irony
  • Metonymy: a linguistic expression is not understood literally, but in a figurative sense, for example, you don’t drink a glass when you are drinking a glass, but the drink in the glass.
  • Synecdoche: similar to a metonymy. A part stands for the whole, a sail on the horizon, for example, stands for a ship.
  • Metaphor: An image that stands for something else.
  • Comparison: Everything with a "like. Bright as the sun. Dark as night.
  • Neologisms: neologisms
  • homonym: a word with several meanings.

4. Syntax and form

In the fourth step of the interpretation to analysis you deal with the appearance and the sentence structure of the poem. For example, where does the sentence end in a poem? Does it end with the verse line (line style), before it (caesura), or only in the next verse line (enjambment)? Are there visual conspicuities such as bold print?

Also important here are the metre and the characters. Figures are rhetorical stylistic devices that affect the syntax, or sentence structure, of a poem.

Meter is an abstract and regular pattern of marked and unmarked syllables. That is, how many syllables are there in a line of verse and which of them are stressed when you read a sentence aloud normally? There is usually a pattern and that has of course again its own name. The chorus iambus, for example, has 4 syllables in each line, of which the first and the last are stressed. But here again is a small list of everything else related to syntax and form, again unordered and without claim to completeness:

  • Iambic: alternation between stressed and unstressed syllables.
  • Acatalactic: A line with iamb ends with an unstressed syllable.
  • Hypercatalactic: There is one syllable too many!
  • Catalactic: There is one syllable too few.
  • Blank verse: a five-bar iamb without rhyme. So one verse five times repeating stressed and unstressed syllables.
  • Quatrain/Quartet: A stanza with four lines of verse and one of the following rhyme schemes: abab aaaa aabb abba. A rhymes with A and B rhymes with B.
  • Couplet: A stanza consisting of two rhymed lines.
  • Tercet: 3 rhymed verses
  • Triplet: A special form of the tercet, in which all verses rhyme.
  • Tercets: The middle rhyme of a tercet rhymes with the two outer rhymes of the next stanza.
  • Haiku: A poem of three lines in which there are 5 syllables in the first, 7 in the second, and 5 in the third line of verse.
  • Limerick: A poem with an aabba rhyme that has a special meter.
  • Sonnet: A poem with 14 rhymed verses, the number of syllables is not prescribed. Often there is a volta, that is, a change in content where the number of lines in the stanzas changes.
  • Palindrome: A word that is readable from the front and the back in the same way: storage rack!
  • Internal rhyme: a rhyme within a line of verse.
  • Alliteration: several words in a row start with the same letter.
  • Anaphora: at least two sentences start the same way.

For even more stylistic confidence in poetry interpretation, you can find everything you need to know about verse theory and rhetorical devices in the book Poetics in Keywords.

5. Pragmatics within the text

In the fifth and last step of the poem interpretation you should devote yourself to the historical context of the poem. To which events in world affairs could the poem refer to, for example?? Which views and opinions are represented here? Here it is important that you inform yourself a little about the historical events at the time of the poem’s composition. For example, was there a war or a great catastrophe? All these contexts are included in the interpretation.

Besides poem interpretation there are other methods in literary studies. For an overview you can take a look at the book Arbeitstechniken Literaturwissenschaft (Working Techniques in Literary Studies).

More tips for poems to interpret

And finally something important, in case you and your circle of friends find completely different interpretations: With interpretations it is generally in such a way that it turns out somewhat differently with everyone. The only important thing is that your interpretation makes sense and that everything in the text can be proven.

If your interpretation goes one step further and you compare several poems with each other, it is a poem comparison. Here the poem interpretation as described above also forms the basis.

Do you have any other tips and tricks for interpreting poems?? Are you a fan of poems and write them yourself or do you find them rather annoying?? Write your interpretation experiences with pleasure in the comments! – Or leave us a poem.

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