‘Making Sense of Poetry’ By Paul Grainger

Frequently, when I ask people “Do you ever read poetry?” the reply is usually “No”. And the main reason they give is that although they may have tried, they have found it too demanding; they have had difficulty making sense of it. This prompted me to ponder “How does one ‘make sense’ of poetry?” What follows is a collection of my thoughts on the matter.

The first question, I suppose, is “What constitutes poetry? The answers are myriad, so in an attempt to simplify the issue, rather than offering and responding to contentious arguments, my setting-off point is the following: “Poetry is a powerful and compelling use of all the resources of language, that engages and directs the reader’s imagination and thought.” Simplify! I hear you cry? All right then, how about this: “Poetry is a formal arrangement of words on the page, written by someone for the entertainment of others.” I think that both definitions say the same thing: it just depends to whom one is speaking.

Therein lies the main difficulty, that of knowing how to approach a poem. The possibilities stretch from reading purely for pleasure, through gleaning information, to treating it as an academic exercise. Many poems, dare I say it, most poems, lend themselves to at least two of these possibilities. How much the reader looks for (and hopefully gets) is the result of the amount of creative reading he or she does.

Creative reading is the core of one’s ability to make sense of a poem. It comprises several layers of activity or, should I say, inter-activity. Much of the quality of a poem lies in not what it means but how it means. Every poem deserves at least one reading – we owe that to the poet who produced it – if only to measure the reader’s appreciation of it. The poet has written words that lie inertly on the page, and it is up to the reader to construct meaning for and from them. He (the poet) is inviting you to feel, to think, and to judge as you read. If there is a simple message, a single reading should suffice, but it wouldn’t be much of a poem if that were the case. Consequently the reader should subject the poem to a closer reading (even readings) in order to get at what the poet is really trying to say.

By and large, the poet has employed different devices in order to try and get his message across. There are the common ones of rhythm, rhyme and metre (embodied in layout), but also others, such as irony, ambiguity and suggestion. The first three relate to the form of the poem, the remainder to the content, and the reader needs to give close attention to those words on the page so as to recognise these devices.

All this can be a slow, even ongoing, process, but if it results in an improvement in the reader’s enjoyment and understanding of poetry it is well worth the effort.

Copyright Paul Grainger, Aug 01

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