HOW TO READ LYRIC POETRY
The simplest definition of poetry (in the somewhat limited sense implied by the title of this section) is that it is what poets write. That seems obvious enough, and yet there are those who would dispute the definition. Poetry, they hold, is a kind of spontaneous overflowing of the personality, which may be expressed in written words but may also take the form of physical action, or more or less musical sound, or even just feeling. … But although we admit that there is a kernel of truth in this definition, the meaning of the term that we will be employing in what follows is much narrower. Whatever may be the origin of the poetic impulse, poetry, for us, consists of words, and what is more, of words that are arranged in a more or less orderly and disciplined way.
Other definitions of the term … are too narrow, just as the definition discussed in the last paragraph was too broad (for us). … Between such very broad and such very narrow definitions lies a central core that most people, if they were feeling reasonable about the matter, would admit was poetry.
Many people believe that they cannot read lyric poetry – especially modern poetry. … We would say two things. First, lyric poetry, even modern poetry, does not always demand as much work as you may think if you go about reading it in the right way. Second, it is often worth whatever effort you are willing to spend.
The first rule to follow in reading a lyric is to read it through without stopping, whether you think you understand it or not. This is the same rule that we have suggested for many different kinds of books, but it is more important for a poem than it is for a philosophical or scientific treatise, and even for a novel or play.
In fact, the trouble so many people seem to have in reading poems, especially the difficult modern ones, stems from their unawareness of this first rule of reading them. When faced by a poem of T. S. Eliot or Dylan Thomas or some other “obscure” modern, they plunge in with a will, but are brought up short by the first line or stanza. They do not understand it immediately and in its entirety, and they think they should. They puzzle over the words, try to unwind the complicated skein of the syntax, and soon give up, concluding that, as they suspected, modern poetry is just too difficult for them.
But any good lyric poem has a unity. Unless we read all of it, and all at once, we cannot comprehend its unity. We cannot discover, except possibly by accident, the basic feeling or experience that underlies it. In particular, the essence of a poem is almost never to be found in its first line, or even in its first stanza. It is to be found only in the whole, and not conclusively in any part.
The second rule for reading lyrics is this: Read the poem through again – but read it out loud. We have suggested this before, in the case of poetic dramas like Shakespeare’s. There it was helpful; here it is essential. You will find, as you read the poem out loud, that the very act of speaking the words forces you to understand them better. You cannot glide over a misunderstood phrase or line quite so easily if you are speaking it. Your ear is offended by a misplaced emphasis that your eyes might miss. And the rhythm of the poem, and its rhymes, if it has them, will help you to understand by making you place the emphasis where it belongs. Finally, you will be able to open yourself to the poem, and let it work on you, as it should.
In the reading of lyrics, these first two suggestions are more important than anything else. We think that if readers who believe they cannot read poems would obey these rules first, they would have little difficulty afterwards. For once you have apprehended a poem in its unity, even if this apprehension is vague, you can begin to ask it questions. And as with expository works, that is the secret of understanding.
The questions you ask of an expository work are grammatical and logical. The questions you ask of a lyric are usually rhetorical, though they may also be syntactical. You do not come to terms with a poem; but you must discover the key words. You discover them not primarily by an act of grammatical discernment, however, but by an act of rhetorical discernment. Why do certain words pop out of the poem and stare you in the face? Is it because the rhythm marks them? Or the rhyme? Or are the words repeated? Do several stanzas seem to be about the same ideas; if so, do these ideas from any kind of sequence? Anything of this sort that you can discover will help your understanding.
One final piece of advice about reading lyric poems. In general, readers of such words feel that they must know more about the authors and their times than they really have to. We put much faith in commentaries, criticism, biographies – but this may by only because we doubt our own ability to read. Almost everyone can read any poem, if he will go to work on it.