Poetry can be difficult to understand at times, but does it have to be? Let’s begin by considering what a poem is. Poetry is the art of using rhythmical composition to express imagination, beautiful and elevated thoughts. So a poem contains both beautiful imagery and elevated or “deeper” thoughts. Then the short answer as to the difficulty of understanding poems is both yes and no.
Any literature class that explores poetry will be talking about the deeper meaning. For example in Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is the line “the woods are lovely, dark, and deep” an expression of Frost’s desire for death? What symbolism is inherent in the poem? However, before you worry about any of the “deeper meaning” there is a lot to be found on the “surface”.
Poems are great at painting pictures with words. And much like forms of art those pictures can be enjoyed without worrying about the author’s purpose or message. The beautifully conveyed picture of a winter’s morning can simply be enjoyed for the well-crafted image it is. You can stand with Frost in the snow, listening to the bells on his horse and feel the stillness of that winter day. The elegance of a phrase, the simplicity of statement, the well thought out choice of words can all be admired without thinking about any elevated thoughts the poem may also be meant to convey.
Also, because poems are rhythmic in nature the meter and rhyme of the poem can likewise be enjoyed. And again they can be enjoyed without worrying about the author’s intention or meaning. The flow of the words as they trip off your tongue can be enjoyed in its own right. Just like you can enjoy the rhythm of a song without listening to the words, the rhythm of a poem can be enjoyed unaccompanied by worries about a poems deeper purpose.
“My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.”
The rhythm of unstressed and stressed symbols (referred to as iambic) and the rhyme of the first, second and fourth lines of each stanza with the third setting up the rhyme of the next stanza in Robert Frost’s poem are enjoyable in and of themselves without knowing the proper terms or consideration of the author’s intent.
That being said, to further your reading enjoyment you should consider the crafting that went into the stanza you read. In our example of Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” the beautiful craftsmanship can fool you into believing that such a poem would be simple to craft. However, if you attempt to construct your own poem using iambi lines and rhyming stanzas, it quickly becomes clear that even completing such a poem is difficult, but to create one that does not feel forced into its structure requires a master craftsman. The knowledge of the difficulty of the task can create a greater appreciation on the part of the reader.
To enrich your enjoyment even further you should try to find the author’s point in taking the time and care to craft their words for your gratification. Frost did not tell us of any deeper purpose behind his words but by repeating the last line of his last stanza “and miles to go before I sleep” he created a frenzy of speculation. If the poem is meant to simply be taken literally why would he repeat that last line? So we suppose that there is some deeper meaning behind the conflicting desires of the lovely, dark and deep woods and the promises to keep. But the simple concise nature of the poem does not leave us with many clues as to what meaning we should impart to these symbols. But we can see a running parallel between society and nature. In the first stanza are the woods contrasted with the village. The second stanza mentions a farmhouse contrasted with the woods and frozen lake. The third stanza contrasts the homey sound of harness bells with the sound of a gentle wind. And of course the last stanza contrasts the woods and the promises. So the first step in finding the meaning in a poem is to look for repeating ideas or themes in the poem as in the example just given.
The next step toward understanding is to study the word choice. While Frost does use the words dark, frozen and darkest most of his nature imagery does not lend itself to the darker aspects of nature and wildness. The woods are owned by someone, which lends itself to the picture of a more tended and tamed nature. The woods are filling with snow – snow is often used to show a cleansing or purifying. Frost uses the terms easy and downy to describe the snow fall. And in the final stanza he describes the woods as both lovely and deep. There is not a clear answer to the definition of the conflict, but looking at the word choices shows more about the nature of the conflict between the promises and the woods.
So poems can be difficult to understand but remember that there is no “correct answer” as to the meaning of the poems you read. Moreover, there is no reason you can not enjoy reading poems simply for their imagery. You can take the time to listen to the rhythm and rhyme and enjoy them simply for their lyrical nature. And when you wish to deepen your enjoyment take the time to study the craftsmanship that went into the creation of your favorite poems. Then put in the effort to look for the repeated themes in the poem and study the word choices of your favorite author. Understanding the deeper meaning will require study, but with a little work it will no longer be difficult and you can deepen your enjoyment and understand of the poems you read.