How do you analyze poetry?

NickSo

Senior HTF Member
Joined
Jul 2, 2000
Messages
4,260
Real Name
Nick So
Okay, so im online today, and my friend tells me to help him analyze this poem by leonard cohen:
http://www.windgallery.com/poetry/victim.htm
Well, i didn't know how to. Though I do like reading poetry once in a blue moon, sometimes when i HAVE to read it and say write something about it more than "oh that was nice" in an essay or whatnot, i dont know where to start.
My english teacher hasn't taught us how to analyze poetry, but a tutor awhile ago said the Grade 12 english final is based alot on analyzing poetry. I always thought it was something a person 'had' in them, wheter they could analyze poetry or not, or how they interpreted it. But it turns out its not, and theres a way to do it.
So, how do i do it? How do I analyze a poem?
 

Ben Motley

Supporting Actor
Joined
Mar 3, 2001
Messages
738
Hell man, if I knew this, life would be so much richer. I have the same problem with modern and abstract art. I can't personally get over my own perceived inability to understand art and poetry, and just enjoy it on a surface level. And until you can just look at art or read poetry for sheer enjoyment, I think understanding and analyzing it can only be that much more agonizing.
Let me know if you ever find the secret Nick.
 

Andrew W

Supporting Actor
Joined
Jun 19, 2001
Messages
531
Analysis of literature is a pile of crap invented by English professors. They will claim to know what the author meant and how symbolic it is.

The funny thing is that living authors usually say they meant no such thing and state that they were just trying to write a good story. The English professors then counter with, "It must be subliminal."

Yeah, sure.
 

Ben Motley

Supporting Actor
Joined
Mar 3, 2001
Messages
738
Well, now you're talkin' literature, which is different than poetry, of course. And I agree with ya... to a point. Herman Melville said there was absolutley nothing analogous in Moby Dick, but if any story was ever open to symbolic interpretation, Moby Dick certainly is. Whether Melville likes it or not, Moby Dick is rife with analogy. Just because an author refuses to admit any symbolism in his works doesn't mean it can't be read into it, or that he's telling the truth in the first place. Now, for a professor to declare that his interpretations are "correct" and yours aren't, that's a load of crap.
 

Jeff Braddock

Second Unit
Joined
Jan 26, 2002
Messages
306
I have not read this poem, but the way we were taught to interpret passages for exegetical papers at school was: look for figures of speech ie metaphors, similes,etc; also look at the parallellisms used ie antithetic, synthetic, etc.; look for word tools used ie inclusio, merism (sp?), etc. This is what we were taught to use when analyzing Hebrew poetry, but I think it would still be applicable to any kind of poetry. Also, you might want to know what was going on during the period when the piece was written. Finding out the reason it was written is often times the most important step. Hope this helps.
 

Darren H

Second Unit
Joined
May 10, 2000
Messages
447
-- Leonard Cohen
A kite is a victim you are sure of.
You love it because it pulls
gentle enough to call you master,
strong enough to call you fool;
because it lives
like a desperate trained falcon
in the high sweet air,
and you can always haul it down
to tame it in your drawer.
A kite is a fish you have already caught
in a pool where no fish come,
so you play him carefully and long,
and hope he won't give up,
or the wind die down.
A kite is the last poem you've written,
so you give it to the wind,
but you don't let it go
until someone finds you
something else to do.
A kite is a contract of glory
that must be made with the sun,
so you make friends with the field
the river and the wind,
then you pray the whole cold night before,
under the traveling cordless moon,
to make you worthy and lyric and pure.
Here are a few starting points:
FORM -- How is the poem shaped? What does it literally look like? In this case, we have a simple poem divided into four clusters/verses. Begin by asking yourself why the author decided to segment the poem (song?) in this way. (and you can assume that he did do it deliberately.) How is each verse unified or self-contained? What do the four verses have in common? Depending on how much effort you want to put into this, you could also learn a thing or two about traditional poetic forms, then decide how/if this particular poem fits into them. For instance, this might be called free verse -- it doesn't rhyme. There are other formal elements to notice, of course. One thing I like about this poem is that it uses very simple language:
then you pray the whole cold night before,
under the travelling cordless moon,
to make you worthy and lyric and pure.
Most of the words are monosyllabic. He isn't using the high language and esoteric vocabulary that most of us tend to associate with traditional poetry. Why? What does this tell us about his purpose and his audience (see below)?
FIGURES OF SPEECH -- Poetry critics have come up with all sorts of specific terms for this -- simile, metaphor, synechdode, etc. -- but you don't really need to know those words in order to engage with the ideas. This poem actually makes a great example: after having looked at the form, you'll notice that each verse begins with "A kite is . . ." Look closely at the four things to which a kite is compared. What do a kite and those things have in common? How are they similar/different? Concentrate specifically on the central image: the kite. Kite flying is a pretty universal experience. He's assuming that his reader has flown a kite, probably at some point during childhood. Why would he want to pull us into our childhood memories?
SPEAKER/AUDIENCE -- Sometimes a poet will identify him/herself in the poem. This one doesn't, but he does address us, the reader. Why? What does he want us to learn? How does it change your impression of the author, knowing that he is deliberately speaking to "you."
HISTORICAL/BIOGRAPHICAL -- Again, this one will depend on how much effort you want to put into this. But, it might be helpful to learn a bit about Leonard Cohen. How does it change your opinion to learn that he is known more as a singer/songwriter. (That's him singing his song "Everybody Knows" in Pump Up the Volume.) This is actually another formal consideration. Does it matter to you that this may have been written to be sung? Read other songs/poems by Cohen. Do you notice any trends? Any particular themes in his work? How does his work compare to others of his generation?
LET ME MAKE THIS CLEAR, THOUGH: you are as capable of assigning meaning to this poem as Cohen is. That's why we interact with art: because it forces us to think and to learn and to experience something (beautiful) lacking in our daily lives. Hearing Cohen talk about this poem would probably be pretty interesting -- as I would also love to have heard Melville talk about Moby Dick -- but he does not hold claim to the definitive explanation. Assuming that you can defend it using the text, your interpretation is just as valid as his.
Hope that helps.
 

Mike Broadman

Senior HTF Member
Joined
Aug 24, 2001
Messages
4,951
Another thing to consider is meter. Look at the dominant syllable of a line. For example:
sure said:
Or, maybe English professors exist in the first place because of the need for literature analysis.
 

AllanN

Supporting Actor
Joined
Mar 15, 2002
Messages
950
Looks like you also riped out the forward by mr J. Evans Prichard. I know im no help but I thought it was fitting.
 

Jeff Ulmer

Senior HTF Member
Joined
Aug 23, 1998
Messages
5,582
You hold the poem in your hand

You put the poem on a stand

You look at it from different sides

And try to figure what it hides

If it comes out really good

And flows as though you think it should

Then maybe it was worth the time

You analysed a silly rhyme
 

Jared_B

Supporting Actor
Joined
May 7, 2001
Messages
580
I totally agree with Andrew.

Why should anyone have to analyze someone else's book/poem? If it means something to you, why does it matter if it means something different to a professor? Why should students have to write big essays about what an authoer MIGHT be referring to in their book?

It would be much easier to teach students how to write when they are writing about something they care about, not some 50 year-old novel written by a crazy guy that lived by himself in a cabin in the woods for several years.
 

Holadem

Senior HTF Member
Joined
Nov 4, 2000
Messages
8,967
Analysis of literature is a pile of crap invented by English professors. They will claim to know what the author meant and how symbolic it is.

While I don't feel that extreme about it, I certainly wondered a lot about this. I even asked my in high school professor if she wasn't reading a bit too much into it. She didn't like that, and pretty much blew me off...
I was wondering something similar about 2001 Space Odissey in some other thread. I was told that one could see whatever they wanted in art, regardless of the authors intentions. It sounds absolutely ridiculous to me, so I didn't insist...

--
Holadem
 

Janna S

Second Unit
Joined
Feb 17, 2001
Messages
287
I am disappointed to see the hostility toward analysis and insight that is expressed in some of these replies.

In my experience, the value of almost anything of quality - a poem, a book, a song, a speech; a film, a painting, a building; or maybe even a car, a concert, a meal, a home theater system - is enhanced when I understand more about it - how was it built, what are its components, why might the poet/builder/painter/person have made those choices, what memories or reactions does it evoke, what does it make me feel, think, remember, want, do?

People often feel hostile toward things they don't understand. Perhaps even the idea that some kind of insight might be possible is enough to make some hostile.
 

Joe Tilley

Supporting Actor
Joined
Jan 1, 2002
Messages
686
This may not apply here,but to me a poem is something you feel...

I live in a world where everyone can see,but no one can hear

Where my pain is very obvious,but no one seams to care

I cut open my veins as they stand there and watch

But no one hears me screaming,all I wont is to be loved

My blood makes a shallow puddle as I lie here to die

Everyone can see me,but no one hears me cry

My skin withers away as my heart slowly stops

I feel every last beet,I count each last drop

So if this is all life has to offer than just let me die

Because I can no longer go on living this life....

This is one of my many poem's Joe 96
 

Mike Broadman

Senior HTF Member
Joined
Aug 24, 2001
Messages
4,951
Jared,

The most important step of learning to write is to read. Any hack can just come up with a bunch of stuff. The great artists build on their predecessors and create their own voice from that.

Jenna,

Excellent post. These sort of complaints come in all shapes and colors, in every field of endeavor. Terms like "pretentious," "pompous," "self-indulgent" are often used as excuses to attack things that talented people put a lot of effort into.
 

Randy Tennison

Screenwriter
Joined
Jan 5, 1999
Messages
1,099
Real Name
Randy
My senior year of college, I had to analyze a poem. I really tried to get into it, but just couldn't find "symbolism" or "meaning" from it. (I later learned that I am wired for problem solving, not abstraction).

So, I wrote a 3 page bullsh!t paper on what the poem "meant to me". I didn't mean any of it.

My professor loved my analysis so much, she wanted to have it published, as there had not been a published analysis of this poem before. I said "no thanks", but never told her that my work was crap. I got an "A" for the course because of that BS analysis. I've never forgotten that.
 

Ben Motley

Supporting Actor
Joined
Mar 3, 2001
Messages
738
Randy, don't be so quick to sell yourself short man. Maybe you did in fact "get it", at least from your perspective. Please note my first post in this thread; I have zilch faith in my ability to understand the arts, yet my highest marks in school and in college came in English and writing. And the whole time I was just "bullshitting my way through". Under pressure, I just kinda go on autopilot, and once there, all the real bullshit, that of my lack of self-confidence, takes a back seat to the fact that it's time to get down to business. Folks like me and you aren't fakes, we're genius.
 

Holadem

Senior HTF Member
Joined
Nov 4, 2000
Messages
8,967
People often feel hostile toward things they don't understand. Perhaps even the idea that some kind of insight might be possible is enough to make some hostile.
Janna,
If this is addressed to me, I will let you know that I was one of the very best in my class at that exercise (litterature actually, not poetry). And like Randy above, when I couldn't notice anything in what I was reading, making some consistant bullshit was enough to get a good grade. I am simply expressing concern over professors who see things where there is nothing. I have no example to give you, but some of the stuff was really over the top. And she claimed to knwo what the authors had in mind. Excuse me if I am a little skeptical.
Should your post be addressed to me, you would also be guilty of reading too much into what I wrote

--
Holadem
 

NickSo

Senior HTF Member
Joined
Jul 2, 2000
Messages
4,260
Real Name
Nick So
Thanks guys...
I've always thought that analyzing poems and whatnot was completely useless, but i found it very interesting to see how the author uses the words to describe something more subliminal, and underlying. Different metaphors and analogies can mean the same thing, but the kinds of metaphors and analogies used can alter the meaning completely (to some extent)
Janna: great post, and i totally agree with you. Being a car guy and HT enthusiast, with your analogies i can finally see why english teachers want us to all understand literature on all its levels.
In a car, i don't admire it for its speed, or its 1/4 mile time, I really admire the engineering it takes to make a good car. The honda S2000 for example, an engineering feat to get huge amounts of power from a 1.9l engine in a production car.
In HT, its not the amount of bass it can deliver, its the combining of sounds to make the whole sound image, and how each component is important in delivering that image to its viewers.
I see the same thing now with poetry/literature. To really appreciate the author's works, you gotta get underneath its literal meaning, and read between the lines. Otherwise its the same as any other book you can get at Safeway. Just a bunch of text printed on paper bind into a book.
Just my thoughts
 

Forum Sponsors

Latest posts

Forum statistics

Threads
345,168
Messages
4,732,715
Members
141,396
Latest member
Dynz