Having spent some time last week studying and writing about short fiction, we’ve practiced our

critical reading and analysis skills, focusing on the development of patterns in Mary Hood’s

“How Far She Went.”  Fiction tends to work well as an introduction to critical reading and the

study of literature for a few reasons: first, the language is usually accessible; we’re within a

relatively familiar linguistic form: full sentences; dialogue; well-developed ideas, etc.  Second,

we have a good grasp of basic narrative structure, so fiction allows us to focus on pattern,

metaphor, etc.  Most of us have, from our earliest memories and experiences, a basic recognition

of how stories work.  Almost everything we’re exposed to as children incorporates some

narrative structure – nursery rhymes, children’s songs and books, cartoons, etc.  There is a sort of

comfort offered by a narrative structure.  

When we move to poetry, we may feel a bit disoriented: we may not see the familiar narrative

structure in recognizable paragraphs, dialogue, conventional syntax and grammar.  We still have

pattern and metaphor to look out for, but we are also confronted with unfamiliar structure and

linguistic conventions – and that can make poetry seem impenetrable.  As a result, many people

may see poetry and poetic language as indecipherable or needlessly complex.  Fortunately for all

of us, it’s neither of those things.  Like fiction, poetry uses patterns to construct meaning: these

can be repeated words, images, sounds, or even syntactical forms.  When we study poetry, what

we’re really exploring is how the words are put together, and how that structure (word choice,

order, and form) creates an argument.  Once we understand how poetry works, we can become

more confident readers and we can experience the profound value of poetic language.  As you

read poetry, keep the following things in mind: