Poets and readers have preferences for what they like and don’t like in poetry, as well as what makes a poem work. And what doesn’t.
Some poems come across too lofty while others read too plainly or unimaginatively. Some poems run wild with metaphors where every line expresses its own alien world and language.
Modern poets tend to write in free verse, and interpreting formal poetry can feel like trying to solve a physics problem. Readers used to seeing poems on the page as versus being more familiar with spoken word poetry or slam poetry come to a poem with their own sets of criteria for what makes it good, and vice versa.
Time period. Age. Background. Culture. Language. Life experience. Personal taste. These factors and more influence what you read, why you read it, and how you read it. And if you have to read it — you’re probably not going to like it because poetry then feels like a chore.
Science Is Here to Help You Feel All The Poetic Feels & Talk About it Like a Pro
However, there are three easy ways to interpret all kinds of poetry and enjoy it, despite all that. A 2017 study out of New York University had 400 participants read and rate 16 sonnets and 111 haiku based on:
- Vividness (use of mental imagery)
- Emotional Arousal (stimulus-response and feelings)
- Emotional Valence (positivity or negativity)
(The time periods of the selected poems ranged from the 16th century to the present. )
These three aspects of aesthetic appeal (Hello, alliteration) each hold a certain amount of weight in influencing how a reader experiences a poem and how much they like it. Or despise it. Just because a poem isn’t to your taste, as a reader or writer, doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate or comment thoughtfully on it.
Interpreting Poetry by Vividness
Vividness, relating to the degree of mental imagery used, is the strongest determiner of how appealing a poem is to a reader, according to the study.
Their results showed that vividness of mental imagery was the best predictor of aesthetic appeal — poems that evoked greater imagery were more pleasing. Emotional valence also predicted aesthetic appeal, though to a lesser extent; specifically, poems that were found to be more positive were generally found to be more appealing. By contrast, emotional arousal did not have a clear relationship to aesthetic appeal.
Notably, readers did not at all agree on what poems they found appealing, an outcome that supports the notion that people have different tastes; nonetheless, there is common ground — vividness of imagery and emotional valence — in what explains these tastes, even if they vary.Science Daily
Vividness goes beyond the expected, cliche and plain. It’s showing (active language) versus telling (passive language). But telling and passive language have their effective uses!
Vividness is communicated through the use of metaphor, simile, assonance, and other literary devices. A number of approaches and tools come together to awaken your senses in the poem as you read or hear it.
Interpreting Poetry Through Emotional Arousal
As you interpret a poem, consider the type and degree of emotional arousal you experience as you read. What are your feels? Do you get chills? Are they the good kind or the creepy kind?
Ask: How stimulating or soothing is the poem? What am I feeling?
What words, lines or sounds in the poem create this emotional arousal within you? Write down the emotions you experience alongside each stanza.
You can experience different layers of emotion when reading one poem, and the content may make you think of an experience in your life. You are relating to the poem — which makes the poem more accessible and easier to interpret. When that happens, you enjoy the poem more, can understand it, and easily talk about it.
Interpreting Poetry by Emotional Valence
When interpreting poetry, emotional valence boils down to the following question: How positive or negative is the poem’s content?
According to the study, emotional valence does not affect a poem’s aesthetic appeal to its audience as much as vividness or emotional arousal. However, a more positive poem is more likely to appeal to the general reader.
What if you read or write “sad things” all the time? Does that make you a sad person? Nope. When you experience a loss, such as a breakup, you often turn to songs that relate to where you are or where you want to be, and the same also applies in poetry.
A poet marketing their work can look at the emotional valence in their poetry chapbook or collection to help determine their niche audience and places to reach out to, to share their work. It’s all about connection.
As a reader, you may feel triggered by a poem’s content (positive or negative), and this can influence your interpretation of a poem. That doesn’t mean your personal interpretation is wrong, but try to put yourself in the narrator’s shoes (or the hand holding the pen!), as well.
Try Interpreting This Poem by Mary Oliver
There’s a kind of white moth, I don’t know
what kind, that glimmers
in the forest, just
as the pink moccasin flowers
If you notice anything,
it leads you to notice
I was so full of energy.
I was always running around, looking
at this and that.
If I stopped
If I stopped and thought, maybe
can’t be saved,
What’s Your Take?
What’s your take? What do you feel? How would you write your own version? Let me know in the comments.
If you write your own version and record it, tag me on Instagram @tifchaney. I’d love to hear it!
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