Dan Kurland's    www.criticalreading.com
Reading and Writing Ideas As Well As Words

Questions/ Comments      Home Page

How the Language Really Works:
The Fundamentals of Critical Reading and Effective Writing
Reading / Writing
Critical Reading
Ways to Read

Fiction v. Nonfiction
Novels / Stories



Reading Poetry: Language

Reading Poetry: Content

Reading Poetry: Structure



Poetry differs in visual form from prose. Poetry commonly appears as a sequence of lines arranged in stanzas rather than a sequence of sentences within paragraphs.

Poetry is ultimately characterized more by how it communicates than by what it communicates.

  • poetry relies on the sound of the spoken language
  • poetry relies on figurative language.
Poetry can tell a story, describe an object or situation, narrate an event, or simply express feelings. Whatever the substance of the remarks and the ultimate message, poetry is characterized by linguistic elements that go beyond standard sentence structure.

Above all, poetry involves aspects of language that appeal to, and communicate by, sound and sight. It is for these reasons that we cannot really speak of restating poetry. Indeed, this is one reason many people find poetry difficult.

The Poet and Persona

Poetry is the most personal and indirect form of fictional expression. The poet can speak directly to an audience, much as a narrator in stories.
A noiseless patient spider, I mark'd where on a little promontory it stood isolated…
       Walt Whitman, A noiseless patient spider
An author might also speak with any of a variety of personas
I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins. My soul has grown deep like the rivers…

       Langston Hughes, The Negro Speaks of Rivers
Because my mouth
Is wide with laughter
Any my throat
Is deep with song,
You do not think
I suffer after
I have held the pain
So long.

       Langston Hughes, Minstrel Man
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free . . . .
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars. . . . .

       Langston Hughes, Let America Be America Again
or as an impersonal narrator:
She told the story, and the whole world wept
At wrongs and cruelties it had not know
But for this fearless woman's voice alone.

       Paul Laurence Dunbar, Harriet Beecher Stowe

Reading Poetry: Language

The French poet Paul Valéry defined poetry as "a language within a language." The contemporary poet Kenneth Koch speaks of poetry as
a language in which the sound of the words is raised to an importance equal to that of their meaning, and also equal to the importance of grammar and syntax.

In ordinary language, the sound of a word is useful almost exclusively in order to identify it and to distinguish it from other words. In poetry, its importance is much greater. Poets think of how they want something to sound as much as they think of what they want to say and in fact it's often impossible to distinguish one from the other.

( Kenneth Koch, “The Language of Poetry,” The New York Review, May 14, 1998, p. 44.)

Koch offers the example:

Two and two are four.
as an example of non-poetry, and
Two and two
are rather blue.
as an example of poetry.

The Poet's Arsenal: Repetition

The poet's arsenal includes many devices based in some way on repetition, whether repetition of beat (rhythm, cadence, meter) as with
The world is too much with us, late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers…

       William Wordsworth
repetition of initial sounds (alliteration):
So fair, so sweet, withal so sensitive
       William Wordsworth
repetition of final sounds (rhyme):
Today, in every way, I say, I may.
repetition of dissimilar-sounding letters in "eye rhyme" (as opposed to "ear" rhyme)
I found some When I was home.
Koch points out that all words have an inherent rhythm as a result of naturally stressed and unstressed syllables.

Each word has a little music of its own, which poetry rearranges so it can be heard. In nonfiction texts, the repetition of sounds, words, or grammatical constructions generally provides emphasis or establishes parallelism. Textual examples are often found in transcriptions of speeches.

The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.
       Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address
We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardships, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.
       John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address

The Poet's Arsenal: Imagery, Symbolism and Figurative Language

In addition to repetition, poetry utilizes a broad range of figurative language, imagery, and symbolism—all devices requiring that the reader infer an unstated meaning.

We talk of the language in other genres of literature as being "poetic" when it draws heavily on either indirect expression of ideas through imagery, symbolism, or figurative language or it draws heavily on the sound (whether rhythm, cadence, beat, or rhyme) of words. Both of these devices are more evocative than direct in their expression, catering more to the senses than to reason and intelligence.

The Poet's Arsenal: Lies

Finally, Kenneth Koch points out that poetry makes special use of the fact that language has no problems with statements that are not true. Language has requirements for grammar, spelling, and pronunciation. Beyond that, as long as what you say is clear and understandable (which for the human mind is a very wide range), anything goes. Poetry can lie with equanimity. As Shakespeare noted, "The truest poetry is the most feigning."

Not that poetry tells falsehoods, that it asks people to believe things that the poet does not believe. Koch is speaking more of wildly inventive and imaginative assertions: Language is like a car able to go two hundred miles an hour but which is restricted by the traffic laws of prose to a reasonable speed. Poets are fond of accelerating: "In the dark backward and abysm of time (Shakespeare); "They hurl with savage force their stick and stone/And no one cares and still the strife goes on"(John Clare); "I effuse my flesh in eddies and drift it in lacy jags" (Whitman). Such images involve more than mere exaggeration!

Reading Poetry: Content

Poetry often tells a story, describes a scene, event, or feeling, or otherwise comments on the human predicament. The content is contained in description, narration, and assertions.

Reading Poetry: Structure

A wide technical vocabulary exists for describing both the structure of poetic lines and traditional structures of poems as a whole. See
UVic Writer's Guide: The Table of Contents
           Glossary of Literary Terms
           Glossary Of Poetic Terms ,

Related Topics
Fiction v. Nonfiction
Novels / Stories

Reading / Writing
Critical Reading
Ways to Read

Copyright © 2000 by Daniel J. Kurland.  All rights reserved.
This Web page may be linked to other Web pages. Please inform the author

Questions/ Comments   |   Homepage

Dan Kurland's    www.criticalreading.com