How to interpret a poem (with a little help from Walt Whitman)

[This post has been written with ESL/EFL students in mind, CEFR level B2 and above.]


Let’s be honest, reading poetry doesn’t come naturally to most of us. Same as with visual arts or classical music, sometimes it’s difficult to understand complex symbolism or to follow a poet’s train of thought. And what to do with poems that feel like a string of random words that make no sense at all? Or those that are too archaic and full of arcane, outdated words and phrases?

WHY READ POETRY IN THE FIRST PLACE

Yes, reading poetry can be a challenging task, and it’s understandable why most language learners never even think about incorporating it into their reading and learning habits. But, daunting as it may seem at first, reading poetry is exactly what I would encourage you to do. 

There’s much that speaks in favour of it: some educators focus on poetry’s usefulness in enhancing the learners’ feel for the syntax and vocabulary of the target language, as well as the use of literary devices. Beyond the context of language learning, others go deeper and comment on the poetry’s unique ability to articulate and encapsulate complex feelings, which in turn helps us to process, verbalise and reflect on our own experience.

Teachers have the tendency to seek the practical use for the resources they employ in their practice, and that’s fine, but to the arguments just mentioned I’d like to add another one – one that has no utilitarian purpose whatsoever, and that is the merit of sheer enjoyment in the aesthetic beauty of a well crafted poem.

To cut a long story short: if for no other reason, read poetry because it will nurture your soul.

STEP-BY-STEP APPROACH TO INTERPRETING A POEM

Similar to the tips on how to talk about paintings that I offered in an earlier post, here I’d like to give a few pointers on how you can approach a poem, especially if you’re an English learner with little to no experience of reading poetry. 

For the purpose of this post, I’ll use a poem by one of my favourite poets, Walt Whitman. In fact, it was his upcoming birthday (May 31) that initially inspired me to write this article. The poem I’ve chosen is titled “To a Stranger”, and it comes from Whitman’s most famous collection of poems known as Leaves of Grass.

Read it aloud, slowly and attentively:

Now, let’s unpack it:

Step 1: Check new vocabulary

If you’re proficient in English, you can skip this step, although there will probably be a word or phrase you’ll need to look up in a dictionary. In any case, do check anything that may be unclear. Jot down any notes, then read the poem again, this time silently.

Step 2: Observe the structure and form

Here I’ll introduce just a few very basic technical terms you can use when talking about poetry. Poems are written in lines; a group of lines is called a stanza. So, the poem above is a one-stanza poem containing ten lines.

As you probably know already, many poems contain rhyme, i.e. there are repeating syllables, often at the end of lines. Is there any rhyme in this poem?

Another common feature of poetry is something called metre, which is the rhythmic structure of a poem – a coherent and fixed pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables within a line. Classical Greek and Roman poetry was written according to very specific metric rules, and the practice was continued in many other languages for hundreds and hundreds of years – until fairly recently.

Typical for Whitman (and much of modern poetry), the poem above has neither rhyme nor metre. In fact, when you read it aloud, it doesn’t necessarily feel like a poem; it could’ve been a short passage of prose. This form of poetry is called free verse and its use alone can lead us to form an impression of Whitman as a free spirit, a man unfettered by rules and social conventions. (That was a sweeping generalisation, but true for Whitman nonetheless!)

Due to all the rules, metrical poetry is a bit more complicated for structural analysis. We don’t need it for this poem anyway, so we’ll skip that subject for now, but I do promise to come back to it in future posts.

Step 3: Think about the theme(s)

When talking about literary works, discussing themes is unavoidable. What exactly are they?

A theme is simply the main idea of a literary work. It’s typically something abstract, such as love, hate, loneliness… Whereas a motif is something much more concrete and explicitly stated, perhaps as a symbol, or through use of particular colours, sounds etc. 

Commentators usually say that the theme of this poem is solitude or the need for connection. Does perhaps something else strike you as a theme?

Step 4: Think about the tone

Another literary term worth mentioning is tone, which is the mood set by the author through the use of all the devices, vocabulary, syntax and the general use of language. 

Rely on your subjective feeling: what mood does this poem inspire? Is it happy or sad; humorous or solemn? If you’re struggling to find the right words to describe the tone, have a look at the article 155 Words To Describe An Author’s Tone for a very useful list of adjectives.

Step 5: Speculate and reflect

This is my favourite part. It’s pure guesswork based on the clues found in the poem. Don’t worry about whether your speculations are true or not; allow your imagination to work its magic.

Think about who this “passing stranger” might be. In the first line, Whitman makes it seem like he doesn’t know the person at all; he doesn’t even know whether it’s a man or a woman. It’s just a nondescript stranger. Two lines later, though, he sounds certain about having intimately known that person a long time ago. What do you make of that paradox? 

Have you ever experienced anything like that, having a strong, electrifying sense of connectedness with someone you’ve never seen before (go back to line #7 and that very physical description of the sensory pleasure derived from the mere appearance of the stranger). How do you explain it?

The poem has a dream-like quality, but we know it’s not a dream (it’s “as of a dream”, in line 2). And the irrelevance of the stranger’s gender could indicate that Whitman’s writing here is in very general, human terms, applicable to and shared by all. I read this poem as neither a dream nor reality, but as a vision of how things used to be and, most important, a prophetic announcement of how they will be once again.

But never mind me – what is the poem saying to you?

Step 6: Explore the historical and cultural background

I lied. This is my favourite part. 

The beauty of art is that it doesn’t give us definitive answers but rather makes us ask more and more questions. It allows us to freely explore in search of meaning. Ultimately, each poem is about its reader as much as it is about the writer. 

Having said that, some poems are indeed (auto)biographical and they do refer to specific people or events, regardless of our imaginative and subjective interpretations. Where does Whitman’s intense interest in the themes present in the poem come from? Here we have to do some research and learn about the wider context in which the poem was written. Don’t worry, I’ve done this piece of homework for you:

Whitman was greatly influenced by the Transcendentalist philosophical movement, which placed a heavy emphasis on our interconnectedness, both with each other and with the natural world. Many other of his poems from the Leaves of Grass collection develop that same theme, some in a very intense, physical, even erotic way that, as you can imagine, gained him some notoriety. Some of that can be felt in “To a Stranger”, as well.

Another influence, very much related to the Transcendentalists, was the historical context of the rapid urbanisation and industrialisation of 19th century America, which left the society Whitman lived in more fragmented and atomised than ever before (add to that the horrific impact of the Civil War of 1861-1865). With his personal ethos of intimate fellowship and camaraderie, Whitman strongly resisted and opposed such negative developments with every fibre of his being.

So, it may not have been as obvious at first glance, but the poem can be read as a piece of social commentary rather than a love poem, or one about the longing for intimate connection to another human being. (Spoiler alert: a lot of Whitman’s poetry plays on the same sort of ambiguity.)

Step 7: Compare with a translation

Literary translations are works of art in and of themselves. If you are not a native English speaker, I would encourage you to find any translations of this poem into your mother tongue and compare it with the original. Sometimes a good translation brings out nuances of meaning or subtle hints you would’ve otherwise overlooked. (You can also do that as part of Step 1, if the language of the poem is too difficult to fully understand.)

EXPLORE WITH OPEN MIND

The analysis of a longer, more complex poem would’ve demanded more work, but as you can see, not all poems are incredibly obscure and impossible to interpret. In fact, most aren’t, so don’t feel intimidated by poetry!

Whatever you choose to read, read it with an open mind, and try to put an effort into cracking some of those less obvious elements of a poem, because they all play a part and contribute to its meaning – anything from metric patterns and literary devices to autobiographical elements and the wider social / historical context.

At the end, below you’ll find a few links you might find useful, including several online resources about our birthday boy Walt. And if you care to share your own interpretation of “To a Stranger”, feel free to make use of the comments sections below!


Literary Devices and Literary Terms – the Complete List

Where to Start with Walt Whitman

The Walt Whitman Archive

The Walt Whitman board on the Grammaticus Pinterest profile

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