How to Read a Poem | Junior Cert Study Notes
Did you know that learning to read a poem properly can give you a better understanding of what it’s about and the themes it explores? Cathy Sweeney, English teacher at The Institute of Education, has some helpful advice for students preparing to sit the new Junior Cycle English exam this June.
Approach a poem as you would approach an unfamiliar meal in a restaurant. Instead of trying to swallow the dish whole, proceed slowly, appreciating all the separate ingredients and how they have been put together.
Firstly, form. What does the poem look like? Is it divided into stanzas? Are the lines long or short or irregular in length? Does the poet use enjambment? The physical appearance of a poem often reveals something about its meaning.
Secondly, sound. Listen to the poem. Think about its rhythm. Does the poet use rhyme, or any other sound effect such as alliteration, assonance, sibilance or onomatopoeia? The sound of a poem expresses its meaning.
Thirdly, imagery. What pictures form in your mind as you read the poem? How are they created? Does the poet use simile or metaphor or symbol or personification?
Lastly, language. Is it simple or complex? Is it formal or casual? Does the poet use dialogue or allusions or compound words?
Having approached the poem in this way, slowly and carefully, you will arrive at a richer understanding of what it’s about and of the themes it explores. Much better than trying to swallow the poem in one big bite!
For a practical illustration of this approach to poetry, watch the following tutorial of Cathy Sweeney exploring the poem Frogs by Norman McCaig.
Glossary of Poetic Terms
Alliteration: the use of words with the same initial letter in sequence or proximity
Allusions: a reference to another text or subject
Assonance: the effect created by placing words with the same vowel sounds close together
Compound words: formed when two or more words are put together to form a new word
Dialogue: the exchange of conversation between characters or people
Enjambment: continuing a sentence across a line break, also known as a run-on-line
Form: the physical structure of the poem
Metaphor: an imaginative implied comparison
Onomatopoeia: sound in a word imitating a sound in the world
Personification: when inanimate objects are attributed human qualities
Rhyme: when words have the same sound pattern
Rhythm: the movement or beat in a poem
Sibilance: a type of alliteration in which an ‘s’ sound is repeated
Simile: a comparison using as, like or than
Stanzas: section of a poem separated from other sections by line spacing
Symbol: words or images signifying more than they literally represent