Lesson 9: Understanding Levels in Poetry

Introduction to Poetry

Poetry may be a lost art because somewhere and somehow between middle school and high school, some students find poetry difficult to understand. They don’t want to read it. They don’t want to listen to it, and they certainly don’t want to write it.

However, understanding poetry doesn’t have to be difficult or feared. Like a toy model or lego set, poetry is put together piece by piece–word by word. Each level builds on the foundation before it–line by line and stanza by stanza.

Typographical Level of a Poem

The typographical level of a poem is how it is typed on the page. Generally, a poem is typed in lines and stanzas like song lyrics. However, a well-known writer, E. E. Cummings, was known for pushing the boundaries for how a poem should be typed. Read his poem “Buffalo Bill’s”:

Buffalo Bill’s
: E. E. Cummings


Notice the typography. Some words are run together. Some lines are indented. Most of the words are in lowercase letters; only the proper nouns are capitalized.  Finally, there’s no punctuation. Readers need to ask the question, “How do all these decisions, made by Cummings, impact the meaning of the poem?”

Sound Level of a Poem

The sound level is the musicality of the language when the poem is read aloud. It may include rhyme, rhythm, repetition, alliteration, assonance, consonance, caesura, or other techniques. Read aloud this stanza (excerpt) from Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Bells”:


The Bells
Author: Edgar Allan Poe


Hear the sledges with the bells—
Silver bells!
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars that oversprinkle
All the heavens, seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells—
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.

Notice the use of rhyme: bells, foretells, wells and tinkle, oversprinkle, twinkle.  Notice the repetition of words in some lines. Tinkle, time, and bells have repeating words three times each. Notice the alliteration–words that sound the same at the beginning. Notice the assonance–words that have the same vowel sounds. Notice the consonance–words that have the same consonant sounds.

Imagery Level of a Poem

Poets create snapshots of life through word pictures. That imagery can be a description using the five senses: sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell. Like fiction, it will focus on specific nouns and action verbs. Imagery can also be achieved through figures of speech: similes, metaphors, personification, hyperbole, etc.  In the early 20th Century, William Carlos Williams was part of the Imagism Movement. Read his poem “The Red Wheelbarrow”:

The Red Wheelbarrow
: William Carlos Williams

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Notice the isolation of a single image–the red wheelbarrow. Notice the use of specific nouns–wheelbarrow, rain,  chickens. Notice the strong action verb–glazed. Notice how the poem is a snapshot of a particular moment in life.

Idea Level of a Poem

The idea level is the poem’s theme–the central idea that the poet is conveying in the poem. A theme can be overemphasized by writers. The poet has to allow the imagery and words to unfold the theme like a person opening a gift. If they directly state the theme, the poetic elements are lost.

Like fiction, a poem’s theme can be a universal theme such as childhood, nature, aging, death, etc. For example, here’s Emily Dickinson’s poem first published as “The Chariot,” also known as “Because I Could Not Stop for Death”:

The Chariot
: Emily Dickinson

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

We passed the school where children played,
Their lessons scarcely done;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.

We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.

Since then ’tis centuries; but each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses’ heads
Were toward eternity.

Combining Levels

In poetry, the writer blends all the levels–typography, sound, imagery, and ideas–when writing a poem. Readers need to ask, “How do all the parts work together?” in order to understand the poem.