The secret to understanding poetry

Notebook and Books

There’s only one kind of poetry that you actually need to understand in order to pass life: love poems. And even then, you only need to understand ones from people you actually like.

But for the rest of us right now, passing school is a greater concern than passing life. Because the final test for school, hopefully, is a little more imminent than the final test for life. (Yes, that pun was intended.)

And for some of us, understanding poetry on a reading comprehension test is not our forté. But still, it’s a hurdle that needs to be crossed.

So, like any other problem, you really have to get down to the root of the problem before you can issue any advice. So, to begin the diagnosis, I’ll ask two questions: first, do poems have a set, defined meaning that is the same for everyone, everywhere, across time? And second, if so, who decides what that meaning is?

If your answer to the first question was no, then why are we writing tests based on them? Because if the meaning of a poem is different to different people across different time periods, then how on earth can we pick one meaning and say that it is right for everyone? Basically, how can we ask objective questions about a supposedly subjective subject? It’s like asking someone to tell you their favourite flavour of ice cream, and when they say vanilla, you tell them they’re wrong. It doesn’t make sense.

And of course, the education system doesn’t help one bit this entire way. Year in year out (or ear in ear out, that works too), students are told to deconstruct poems, to make their own meaning of them, and then, when they finally get to the test, they’re told that they must throw away all that education and instead, try to dissect the poem as if they were another person, namely, the examiner. That kind of sets people up for failure, doesn’t it?

Now, of course, if you said yes to the first question, then my question is, who sets the so-called universal meaning?

If poems do have a definitive, eternal meaning, then I would say that the poet has the right to decide its meaning. The poet, after all, is the only one who knows why each poem, each stanza, each line, each word, and yes, each comma, exists. Nobody else does unless the poet tells them.

If we consider that, we now have a problem when we come to testing: I’m quite sure the examiners who wrote the test didn’t consult the poet when writing test questions concerning their poem. Which means that they’re just stumbling around in the dark, making stuff out of thin air.

So if you were clicking on this article in earnest hope to learn how to understand poetry for tests, here’s are my actual tips (yes, I actually do these too. And I’m doing fairly well in lit.):

  1. Get your hands on past year poetry tests and find out exactly how your particular examiners like to mark, and learn to dissect poems the way that they do. Even if you think that they do so awfully.
  2. Sell your artistic soul away for as long as the literature course lasts, and when you’re done, and you’ve gotten the “A” you wanted, you can retrieve it. The worse thing you can do is to cling on to you artistic soul and fail the course. After all, you don’t exactly want to repeat it.
  3. And if all else fails, well, here’s the thing: if your comprehension involves multiple-choice questions, find a recurring theme among the answers and pick that, because if there’s one thing you can count on, it is that examiners will try to be consistent when dissecting a poem. Consistently wrong, yes, but consistent.

And if you were really just looking for a secret to understand all poetry, everywhere an anywhere, here’s what I recommend: stop looking. The only way to understand poems better is to read more of them.

But for the rest of you non-students, here’s a tip for you: poetry, like other art, is a piece of art. Just enjoy it. Of course, if dissecting it for meaning increases your enjoyment, you can do that. But unless you’re intending to ask the poet what a certain poem really means, don’t be dogmatic about enforcing your view on others, because you’ll begin sounding like a grumpy literature teacher if you do.

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