John Larrysson Column: How to Read a Poem Part 2 of 2

What does the poem try to say?

Today many HK people only want to learn technical English and ignore stories and poetry. Stories and poetry are part of English culture whether written in the UK or anywhere around the world. Reading stories helps people learn the English skills needed for sales, presentations and love letters.

What image does the poem or story create in the reader's mind? Is there a message hidden in the poem? Look through the poem for descriptions of things. (These are often called similes and metaphors.) If you want to write a love letter to someone special, compare how beautiful they are to some beautiful thing or feeling. Do not just write that they are beautiful. To be compared to something beautiful is more complementary than just saying someone is beautiful.

A common way of making comparative descriptions is using the words like or as. (A simile is a phrase that describes something by comparing it to something else, often using the words like or as.) To say a person is as swift (fast) as a horse or as fat as a hippo is more interesting than just saying that they are very fast or fat.

Over the hills and vales of Northland,

Swift as red-deer of the forest,

Swift as yellow-breasted marten*,

(The Kalevala)

*A small fast animal

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Another way to describe by comparisons is to give details about how or why the two are similar. (This is called a metaphor.) This comparison can include calling somebody a name associated with the description you want. A person that stays up late at night is often called a night owl. A fat person might be unkindly told that they are a hippo.

Shall I compare you to a summer's day?

You are more lovely* and more temperate.

(Shakespeare, slightly edited)

*more lovely = lovelier

Some poems have a message like the rhyming poem, Methuselah, by PFC Rex Hursoff, a US Marine Corp cook in WWI. First note the simple rhyme structure and rhythm, then ask yourself: What do you think this cook is saying?

Methuselah ate a
what he found on his plate, a
And never as people do now b
Did he note the amount c
of the calorie count. c
'He ate it because it was chow*. b


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A good example of a modern poem, which does not depend on traditional structure, but with very strong images, is The Second Coming by Yeats.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

What the ceremony of innocence means is left up to the reader's imagination. How it is drowned in blood produces tragic images. The poem was written in 1919 after the First World War.

After reading the poem, decide what the poem is trying to tell the reader. What images does it create in your mind, what message does it send or what story does it tell?

Poetry is often just seen as something required by teachers, yet it can be entertaining and useful to those who have learned to read it. Poetry is a step to better understanding songs and stories. When your speech can create poetic images in your listener's head you will be more memorable and more convincing.

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by John Larrysson

[email protected]

A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for more than a decade.

Note: Regarding "Swift as red-deer of the forest" (in The Kalevala), some other translations take it as "Swift as red-deer or the forest" in which or is an archaic word meaning before or from.