Take a forensic approach. Each time you read the poem you will gather more clues. You will need to read the whole poem six times. Eventually you’ll have enough clues to get the intended meaning.
- Now I don’t often give way to the all-too-common instinct to go straight to Google, but just this once, you should. Search for information about the poem and author using the WWWWW&H checklist. That is, ask ‘Who What Where When Why and How?’ to get the social and cultural context. When you know a poem was written during a war, for example, you have one more clue to add to your understanding.
- Look at every single word as if you are translating an article written in a foreign language. Word choice in poetry is often about double meanings. Pay attention to the multiple definitions offered by a dictionary for each word. You can then read the poem in your own translation and refine as you go.
- Look for patterns, motifs and themes. How? See if you can identify chunks of the poem. E.g. ‘this verse is talking about a candle; this one is talking about a lantern; and this one later is talking about a flame’. Now, when you look at the ideas, do they have a common thread? (Or are they in contrast where the poet is setting up an opposition?) For example, we can link candles, lanterns and flames as things with heat and light known as illumination. These are the motifs and symbols of a theme.
- Read the poem again. Look at the title. Does it give you a clue? For example, the title of a poem Fever 103 suggests the poem’s subject matter is about having a fever and being delusional as a result.
- Now it’s time to advance from the literal meaning to the deeper meaning of the poem. How? Check each idea. Is it a symbol for something else? For example, is the light really about a light or is it about spiritual illumination? Poets write poetry, as opposed to prose, as a form of shorthand for complex ideas. Look for contrasts. The first verse of Fever 103 asks what is pure, contrasting it with hell. Purity vs Sin is a common dichotomy (pair of opposites). Now, can you connect the symbols used (candle, lantern, flame) with the dichotomy of purity/sin? Does light represent purity? Go check the poem again.
- There are clues in the Punctuation.Read the poem aloud and pay attention to what the punctuation suggests.
- Pause for a comma.
- Stop for a full stop.
- Breathe in for a new verse which is possibly a new idea.
- Raise your pitch for a question mark.
Does it make more sense now? If not, try reading the same lines ‘running on’. Poetry is meant to be spoken, but sometimes it’s difficult to figure out the phrasing. So try different ways till it gives you the most meaning.
- Bonus Tip. Ask your mum.
Link to Sylvia Plath’s Poem Fever 103