Posted by: gdevi | February 25, 2010

Types of Poetry – Introduction

I have posted this on ecampus as well. Enjoy your snow day off! See you guys Tuesday. Thanks much. GD.

Dr. G. Devi

English 110

Introduction to Poetry

“Poetry is to be heard for its own sake and interest even over and above its interest in meaning.” Gerard Manley Hopkins

How do you read a poem?

  • Read with your mind’s eye, slowly and carefully. It you attempt to gallop over a poem, it will never come alive with all of its meanings. This is because poetry appeals to the mind and arouses feelings, something you cannot do with turbulence, violence and willfulness.
  • Poetry makes imaginative statements that we may come to value even though they have no seeming connection to facts. This is because poetry appeals to your unconscious mind more than your conscious mind. Poet and critic T. S. Eliot observed that searching for the concrete “meaning” of the poem is like the burglar bringing a piece of meat to throw to the dogs – to divert the mind and to quiet it. Poetry does its work over and beyond its meaning by percolating in our unconscious mind–much the way music does—in a composite of sounds, rhythms, images patterns and arrangements that stimulate varied aspects of our consciousness.
  • Read a poem once overall for a general sense. Don’t restrict yourself to a difficult word. You can look it up later. Look it up, you must. Poetry is the most intentional use of language.
  • Read a second time as if you are seeing the words for the first time, even the ones you know. Reflect on the meaning of the words, of their combination in a line, in a stanza. Sound the words silently in your mind to understand their relation to each other and to experience the rhythm, the patterns of rhyme. The best technique is of course to read it out aloud. Poems that seem “heavy” become light upon reading aloud—think of bells—they look heavy but when they chime they make the lightest sounds.
  • If you are stuck for meaning, try paraphrasing the poem in your own words—restating ideas that seem important to you, ordering them, and coming out and saying it flat what the poem only suggests and hints at.  Paraphrase might seem a heartless thing to do to a poem, but it can actually help us understand the difference between poetry and prose. So go ahead and try it, if it helps. Something will remain even after the most faithful paraphrase; that is the difference between poetry and prose.

For instance, read this poem by W. B. Yeats – The Lake Isle of Innisfree. The paraphrase might read something like this: “I am going to Innisfree and build a cabin there and plant a garden. It will be peaceful there though it will be slow. I really must go there now because I can hear the waters lapping on the shore deep in my mind.” But that is not what we feel when we read this poem to ourselves. Though the paraphrase tells you the plot, so to speak, it is flat and uninspiring. Small things in the poem make a big difference when we pay attention to them: why say “I will arise now”? What or where is Innisfree? What is a Lake Isle? What do clay and wattles look like? What must it be like to live in a bee-loud glade? What is a glade? Does morning have veils? How can midnight be all a-glimmer? What must an evening full of linnet’s wings be like? Why do I hear the lake-water lapping with low sounds? Where am I now? What do roadways and pavements gray have in common? Why is it “pavements gray” and not “gray pavements,” which is the normal word order in English? Why is it inverted here?

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

  • Trust the personal responses we bring to poems as individual readers, but remember to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant responses.

Types of poetry

Lyric poetry: poem sung to the music of a lyre (Greek)—you still see this meaning of the word in “lyrics to a song” in popular music. Here is a short genre definition of a lyric poem: a short poem expressing the thoughts and feelings of a single speaker. The poet uses the first person “I” persona as in Yeat’s poem above; the poet might just have an object in the poem and no human presence at all as in this lyric poem by William Carlos Williams:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Narrative poetry: poems related to an incident and tell a story. Some of the oldest poems in the world are narrative poems: Gilgamesh (2000 BCE), The Iliad and the Odyssey (700 BCE). Narrative poems share elements of fiction such as characters, plot, complication, climax and resolution. One of the oldest surviving forms of narrative poems is the ballad. Here is a very ancient Scottish ballad The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens sung by Fairport Convention. The American musicians Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan are great modern balladeers as well. The Ballad of Patrick Spens is based loosely on the story of a Scottish lord Sir Patrick Spens and his men who were forcibly dispatched to Norway to bring to Scotland the Scottish king’s new wife through turbulent seas; everyone dies. The ballad is an enduring commentary on the misuse of absolute authority. Ballads traditionally told stories of social outsiders; the folks who don’t make the first cut for front-page news.  They might be historical or they might be fictional but they told the stories of men and women who stood up for the people and against oppressive social norms; the ballad is the most populist of poetic forms.  Here is a beautiful modern ballad by Bob Dylan. You can understand the politics of a ballad if you contrast this song with this one. Both are ballads.

Epic is another form of narrative poetry. If ballad is the populist form then epic is the nationalist form. Epics tell big stories of national wars and national heroes. The purpose of an epic is to consolidate national values. The Sumerian poem Gilgamesh, Homer’s The Iliad and the Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, John Milton’s  Paradise Lost etc are some examples of epics.

Dramatic Poetry: poems that present the voice of an imaginary character or characters without any additional narration by the poet. The most effective use of dramatic poems is found in poems known as dramatic monologues, a poem written in the voice of an imaginary character at a decisive moment in his or her life. Whatever we need to know about the story is provided to us by the character in voice. Dramatic monologues are usually addressed to a non-speaking audience, usually one listener, perhaps more. Victorian literature produced some of the best known monologues; Robert Browning wrote many wonderful monologues. My Last Dutchess, Porphyria’s Lover, The Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister etc. Poets who have worked with monologues include Thomas Hardy, Robert Frost, Randall Jarrell, Edwin Arlington Robinson and Sylvia Plath.

Didactic Poetry: Instructive poems that impart a message or teach a body of knowledge. An example would be Shelley’s A Philosophical Poem.



  1. That’s great! Very informative.
    I write about Michaelmatician – some know him as the “poet of non-science”. He is an artist.


    • You’re welcome. Thanks for your comment. GD.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: