How to Understand Poetry

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I know you want to write your literature examination and pass it; and of course maybe to pass with an excellent grade. Now, that is why I have written this to help you. Success is actually in your hand; my part is only of a helper, to give you a guide as you embark on this journey to success. That you have this write-up does not guarantee you a ‘C’ or an  ‘A’ but it is how you use the it that will determine whether or not you will pass very well in this exam you are preparing to write. There are a number of books that have been written to help students pass literature; however, I have seen how students still have challenges understanding the books; that is why I have written this. I believe that if you have been having any difficulty in literature this is the end of your struggle. Just ensure that you do whatever you are asked to do in this book.

As you study, pay attention to the earlier part of the book because towards the end, references may be made to the earlier part where we don’t have to repeat some things.

We decide to start with poetry because it is more of the basic reason for this book. You may be able to read the novels and plays which you can get from the market. And of course, you may read them and are able to answer questions on them easily. But in the case of poetry, you may always need some assistance. Moreover, the poems you are to study are not all from one poet, so they are not found in one collection.

The language of poetry is not literal

First, I like you to note that the language of poetry is not literal as in prose and drama. That is the reason why we have to study some basic poetic devices before this discussion. If you have not read those pages on poetic devices, please do so before you continue here; it is the secret to understanding poetry. Don’t be in a rush or find a deadly short cut, you will not only get yourself the more confused, but also frustrated, and discouraged. You need the poetic devices to unravel the hidden messages behind those poetic lines. Take for instance, someone says “tell that pig to come in”, of course you will be the real pig if you actually expect to find a literal pig to invite into the house. Perhaps you might find some unkempt, dirty and uncoordinated person at the door. That is the ‘pig’. The device used such situation is metaphor. So in poetry, you must try to find a meaning different from the meaning of the word in its literal form.

If a person tells you, ‘I held the sun in my hand, my determination sucked its power to burn,” why would you expect that this is true – a person to hold the sun in his hand. Could that ever be done? Why don’t you say perhaps, this person is saying that a difficult situation which seems almost impossible to overcome, I was able to overcome because of my determination to succeed”. Friend, this is just how poetry works. You think outside the box, and you won’t see poetry as a bunch of uncoordinated words that don’t make any sense.

Explain the figurative expressions

Now, let us see how we can demystify this bunch of seemingly uncoordinated words that just won’t make sense at all to you. But first, you must say to yourself that there is sense in it, and that you must get the sense to the surface. Even if you read 10 times and still can’t get the sense, insist that the sense must come out because if there were no sense in it, no one will be asking you to read it.

Well, the sense to make from it could be from different perspectives.

1.     Believe that there must be something good about the poem

It may have an interesting matter to discuss. “Africa” by David Diop for instance tells you about how Africans suffered in the hands of the White during the slave era; how even in their suffering, they had hope that someday freedom will come. Eventually, Obama could become the president of America. This is interesting, is it not?

2.     The writer may pay more attention to creativity than to the message

You may be drawn to creativity employed to pass the message more than the essence of the message itself. Imagine these “when the skeletons of stillborn promises rot in the catacomb’ this is referring to the promises politicians are likely to make to their people. They are “still born” meaning that before they are said, they are dead and buried – obvious lies. You can see that the poetic expression is very weighty with meaning. But literally, someone may say, ‘What nonsense is this?” “How can promises be stillborn and buried in the tomb when they are not humans”. You can see personification and metaphor in action. Interesting, isn’t it? “If insist that the use of poetic devices still does not make sense, well, don’t think of visiting a native doctor.” Think of reading this from the beginning again.

Ask yourself these questions

We may have to note first what is this poetry about? Why do people write poetry, is it just to show how much they can play with words or they just love to confuse their listeners or readers. You may also be asking why should or must you read poetry.

Well, if you know the answers to these questions you will make poetry your friend; I assure you. Perhaps you have not realized that poetry tells stories just like prose and drama. The three do just the same work of storytelling, but using different mode, that is it. The question why would people choose to tell their story through poetry still remains in the minds of readers. This question will be answered through a simple definition of poetry.

What is Poetry?

Poetry is the expression of deep feelings of joy or sadness through the use of carefully and creatively selected words. These feelings are captured through figurative use of language like metaphor, simile, personification, hyperbole etc. As pointed out earlier, you may call a person a pig because of how bad you feel about the person’s personality. Jesus is called the Lion of Juda not because He is a lion but because He cannot be beaten in any way. He wins every battle. You could be so troubled or excited so much that you lack words to express your innermost feeling, and you liken the situation or person to something else that would create a more vivid picture. This is what deep feeling is about. Feelings expressed through poetry can be said to be more intense than that expressed in prose or drama.

Word economy

In calling someone a dog, you try to economise words and time, and space. You use a few words within a short time and space to say a lot. You try to talk about how good a person is and instead of taking all the words in the world to describe your feeling about this person, you could just summarise in the few words: “He is an angel.” You won’t need any more time or words for explanation. With poetry, you can use only ten lines to say something that would need one hundred prose lines to say.

Use of figurative expression

Now I am sure you can see how important poetry is. Even in prose, writers now use poetic language because of the convincing effect it would add to their story. It makes an expression more vivid and convincing. You may also decide to start writing poems from now, or speak in poetic terms. If I say that “I have been to your house a thousand times to look for you,” don’t call me a lair, because I am not lying; I am using hyperbole to express how seriously I needed to meet with you and that I have made every effort to find you.

Know who the writer of a poem is if you want to understand the poem

Not mandatory, but it is important to know who the writer of a poem is, where he was when he wrote the poem. His experience definitely has affected or influenced his writing. As said earlier, poetry is an expression of a genuine feeling from the heart of the writer. There are no lies in them and they are mostly not fiction. It has been observed that poets die young. You should know why because we have said earlier that it is the person’s deep feeling. That feeling could be that of pain, regret, frustration and it may be that of excitement or great joy. However, the majority are sad which may explain why most poets would die at young age. Some even commit suicide because of their painful experiences. Even though we celebrate them through there writing.

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