Home » Poetics » Understanding Poetry: Steps 1 through 3

Understanding Poetry: Steps 1 through 3

Step 1: Understand what a sentence is and the ways in which a sentence ends or is incomplete.

(You’d think this is obvious, but I can’t tell you how many readers get hung up on this step.)

Step 2: Realize that in poetry, the sentence may be part of a line, the whole line, more than a line, and perhaps several lines.

If the sentence stops within the line, this is called caesura.

End stop means the sentence ends at the line’s conclusion.

If the sentence goes on despite the line ending, this is called run on or enjambment.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Many poets practice the convention of capitalizing the first letter of each line regardless of whether this begins a new sentence. In my opinion, this worst of grammatical conventions confuses so many young readers. Be aware that in poetry capitalization does not necessarily indicate a new thought has begun.

Step 3: Apprehend whether the poem is a sense or a non-sense poem. (sic)

A sense poem is attempting to convey meaning to you in a more-or-less conventional form, such as a narrative or exposition. More on this later.

A non-sense poem may hint at sentences, but is not understandable in a conventional sense. A non-sense poem might play on shape or sound or an enigmatic hint at clear meaning.

Some examples of non-sense:


E.E. Cummings
  a)s w(e loo)k
S                                                         a
  rIvInG                         .gRrEaPsPhOs)


Cummings is using the placement of letters to convey the skittish, wild hopping of the insect, but there is no sentence to this. We don’t attempt to elicit a meaning from this in the usual way. There is no message or moral.

Some poems hint at sentence structure, but again, sense does not appear to be the poet’s goal. Here, Louis Zukofsky translates Catullus not to bring the meaning into English, but to capture the song-like quality of the original Latin:


Poem 41

Ameana pulling, a foot touted high,

touched me for all of ten thousand, and popped scut

is the tour-pickled, low-puling long nosed, ah

decocted heiress of the milked Formiani.

Propinquity, quick buss this fuel, cure eye,

amigos, medicos, call convocations:

no nest, she is nuts, pulls her neck, rogue harried,

what lies sit solid ice imagine o some.

As a rule, AP students are not likely to see non-sense poems as any major part of the examination. This doesn’t mean unconventional poetry has no worth and is to be glossed over: it means you apply a different lens.

Remember, the essential question is “What diction/tone/figures of speech does the author use to convey meaning?” We will spend many hours on this.

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