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Taking your first steps into higher education
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2.3 The effects of poetry

Poetry can appear deceptive to many learners. It is often quite brief (certainly compared to, say, a novel), and it uses everyday language, but in a way that is somehow different, and the effect on a reader is also different. Sometimes, the poem’s brevity is the basis on which a poem’s message is conveyed particularly powerfully. At times, the words become more memorable because of the ‘shape’ of the poem. And often, the words in a poem can provoke a reaction, in a way in which the ‘everyday’ language of prose would not.

I think there are three specific uses of language which a learner in HE might want to look for when reading a poem for the first time.

  • rhyme – by which the final sounds on lines are alike, maybe in a consistent pattern
  • repetition – of words or sounds
  • playful or surprising language – puns, imagery as expressed through similes and metaphors.

It is important not to assume poetic language can be taken for granted. When studying literature, especially poetry, the use of puns, or of imagery expressed through similes and metaphors, is a bit like the ‘elephant in the room’, and it is important that you comment on such language, and not ignore any examples.

Figure 2 Sometimes studying poetry needs you to say ‘there is an elephant in the room’ and not take the poetic language for granted