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Part 4: Starting the ConversationPart 6: Text and Context

Talking Back to a Poem

It would be convenient if there were a short list of universal questions, ones that could be used anytime with any poem. In the absence of such a list, here are a few general questions that you might ask when approaching a poem for the first time:

  • Who is the speaker?
  • What circumstances gave rise to the poem?
  • What situation is presented?
  • Who or what is the audience?
  • What is the tone?
  • What form, if any, does the poem take?
  • How is form related to content?
  • Is sound an important, active element of the poem?
  • Does the poem spring from an identifiable historical moment?
  • Does the poem speak from a specific culture?
  • Does the poem have its own vernacular?
  • Does the poem use imagery to achieve a particular effect?
  • What kind of figurative language, if any, does the poem use?
  • If the poem is a question, what is the answer?
  • If the poem is an answer, what is the question?
  • What does the title suggest?
  • Does the poem use unusual words or use words in an unusual way?

You can fall back on these questions as needed, but experience suggests that since each poem is unique, such questions will not go the necessary distance. In many instances, knowing who the speaker is may not yield any useful information. There may be no identifiable occasion that inspired the poem. But poems do offer clues about where to start. Asking questions about the observable features of a poem will help you find a way in.

We’ll now bring inquiry to bear on two very different poems, each of which presents its own challenges: