If you find poetry difficult then you’re not alone. For many people, it’writing a poetry essay the most difficult aspect of the English course. Butfear not as help and a higher grade are within reach.
In a nutshell, the more subtly you interpret a poem — and give support for your interpretation — the higher your marks, and grade, will be. Poems are rarely to be taken at face value. It is never the literal meanings that will gain you any marks — it is exposing and discussing the poem’s ‘deeper meanings’ that bring in the marks every time. When you interpret a poem, you seek to explain what you believe these ‘hidden meanings’ are, show how they have been created and discuss why this was done. Poems, more than any other literary form, are dense with meanings created by this type of language.
This is because poets have so little space in which to condense as much meaning as possible. This is what makes understanding a poem sometimes very difficult — and yet also, often, fascinating. Just why do poets do this? Is it just to make their poems ‘hard to understand’? It’s because poetry is an art form and the poet is an artist who wants to express not only meaning but also feeling and emotion. Such is the power of a truly fine poem that it can sometimes manage to ‘say the unsayable’.
Let’s get one thing clear: interpretation never deals in facts. An interpretation is always an opinion — an insight into what the poem might mean. Whilst it is your own ideas that are needed, it is invariably easier to uncover the layers of meaning in a poem by discussing it with others. Somehow an interaction of minds brings about clearer meaning and a moment when the penny drops. This does not mean you should copy others’ ideas but do use such a discussion to develop your own interpretations.
You might be one of the many who feel discussing poetry is not cool. Well, keep in mind that it’s your grades that are at stake. The exam is not a practice and you need to get the highest grade you can. Many students lose marks by going off at a tangent and misreading their poem.
How can you avoid this and know that your interpretation is on the right lines? Below is an example to help show you. It is based on a just a couple of lines from the opening of the poem ‘Half Caste’ by John Agard, a very witty poem that many of you will know. You will see from this just how much can be ‘squeezed’ from only two lines of a poem. This is a key thing for you to appreciate. This creates a clear contrast which works to alert the reader to the fact that while both kinds of English create perfectly obvious meaning, only one kind is considered to be prestigious and ‘proper’ within educated circles.
Poetry has, as has been said above, been called the art of ‘saying the unsayable’. Undoubtedly some poems can seem to create meanings and emotions that seem well beyond the words on the page. Language can be a very mysterious and wonderful thing! Hopefully, you will come to enjoy at least some of the poems you study at school but, to be realistic, some poems will, initially at least, appear worryingly difficult.