How to Get a Puzzling Poem

Most people avoid poetry. It’s no secret. People do not like what they don’t understand.

Poems are complex. They are like riddles that point to deep emotion and often tell an abstract story. Poems are not to be understood in one reading. Like songs or even favorite passages from books, we listen and re-read until we find their meaning. Most likely, there are several different meanings.

Realizing what a poet is trying to say is one of the greatest epiphanies one will ever have. It’s like reading a quote that is totally relatable.

Poetry is an art

Here are some clues to help you reach that breath-taking moment of clarity:

  • Read through the entire poem before trying to dig for answers.
  • What does the title tell you? Does it imply a positive or negative message?
  • Who is the speaker of the poem? Remember, the speaker is not always the author.
  • Take note of structure. Do the stanzas have their own theme? Where are the shifts in subject, place, or time?
  • I know it can be boring, but scanning a poem for rhythm will give you a better idea of tone.
  • Is the diction mostly positive or negative connotations?

Poetry is difficult because the author has to send a message in very little words. Each word must serve a purpose. Poetry is a creative process. And you are a literary detective. Don’t be afraid to ask “why?” whenever you read.

Often, your meaning may not be the meaning. Stephen Burt, a poem critic and English Professor explains this during his TED talk (TED talks are an amazing phenomenon, side note). He analyzes several poems in front of an audience to demonstrate how even experienced literary detectives don’t know if they solve the puzzle correctly every time.

On the other side of the pen, poets have the advantage because there is so much freedom. You can say what you need to say for you, and let the reader do the work. Writing is artful expression. Enjoy it on both ends of the pen.


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