A Simple Poetry Checklist
Here’s a simple checklist for studying a single poem that tries to cover the different aspects that one ‘should’ know about any piece of poetry.
1. Choose a poem.
There’s no shortage, but for our purposes let’s select a fairly short one, Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
2. Look all the words up in a dictionary.
That sounds laborious. There are about a hundred words there, some of them commonplace English words which one assumes one ‘knows’. But it’s a valuable exercise. Done properly, it takes about an hour to look up all the definitions and become familiar with them. Then an interesting thing happens: reading the poem again, one feels that it has become transparent somehow; something shines through it. Not light, of course, but a kind of clarity of meaning. Try it.
3. Read it aloud three times.
If you do this properly, by the third reading you might be tempted to grow theatrical about it, ‘acting it out’ either with your voice or your hands or both. And that’s to be encouraged: what’s actually happening is that you are contributing to the poem, rather than just receiving it. Play with it. You might be surprised to find that, whereas you initially thought three times was too many, you want to read it a fourth or fifth time.
4. Note key words and sounds (alliteration, assonance, sibilance).
This is where we begin to learn the skills of a wine-taster in poetic terms: instead of simply reading it as someone might drink a drink, to quench one’s thirst only, one begins to analyse the flavours.
Note the subtle repetition of the ’t’ sound in the first line: ‘I met a traveller from an antique land’; listen for the sibilance of the ’s’ in the second: ‘Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone’, which continues into the third and fourth, like the hiss of sand in the desert, perhaps: ‘Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,/Half sunk’. Pick out the emphasis on the ‘h’ sound in the line ‘The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed’. Then at the end, note the closeness of the alliterative ‘boundless and bare’ with ‘lone and level’.
Don’t try at first to connect these particular noises with any planned or intended meaning - simply experience them as sounds, just as a wine-taster might sense flavour without attaching it to any disappearance of thirst. Meaning is still a little distance away.
5. Note images and figures of speech (metaphors, similes).
Figures of speech might include in this case the interesting use of the expression ‘antique land’, meaning ‘belonging to ancient times’ from the Latin antiquus, anticus ‘former, ancient’, from ante ‘before’. There aren’t that many distinct metaphors or similes, the poem being mainly a description of a scene. Personification exists to some extent with ‘hands’ that ‘mock’ and ‘hearts’ that ‘fed’, but the poem’s primary effect is to shock by contrast between what is expressed and the reality around it: an ancient statue, proclaiming an arrogant perpetuity, is surrounded by desolation. That image - the empty desert - is the central one, chosen by the poet to make his point: human ambition and perception are not as powerful or permanent as they might seem.
6. Note mood or tone.
We can glean mood from the words chosen: ‘vast’, ‘trunkless’, ‘Half sunk’ and ‘shattered' contrast with the human expressions meant to daunt us: ‘frown’, ‘wrinkled’, ‘sneer’, ‘cold command’. Even the powerful are meant to be frightened by Ozymandias: ‘Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’ Immediately we are informed in a blunt short sentence ‘Nothing beside remains’. The expression ‘colossal wreck’ is almost an oxymoron, contrasting immenseness with disaster. Tone is also contributed to by the positioning of the poet relaying these things to us: he tells us of the scene not directly but through the words of a ‘traveller from an antique land’. This adds weight to the viewpoint - someone has actually seen this and is reporting it to us through the poet.
7. Note meanings and themes.
Adding all this up, the theme and overall meaning is now clear: human reality isn’t a guide to absolute reality. Our perceptions of what will last and will be seen to be true are ephemeral.
8. Add personal opinion.
What a student wants to say about the poem depends on how it relates to the student’s own experience. Often obtaining a personal response is difficult: students, especially teenage students, are used to ‘compartmenting’ their lives to a marked degree. Just as home life is a different world to school life, their own inner emotional world is normally kept purposefully apart from any text which they may encounter in a classroom. Suggesting some possible responses is a way forward; drawing comparisons between what Ozymandias might be expressing within this poem and a more familiar recent event in the world of current affairs can get students to open up a little.
One thing is almost certain, though: taking this simple checklisted approach, students will usually become much more familiar with a work of literature and thus draw closer to having a real opinion about it and finding its true worth.