2 Week 2 – Unpacking a Poem (How to Read a Poem (and Maybe Fall in Love with Poetry)

Michelle Bonczek Evory and Leigh Hancock

“The reader of poetry is a kind of pilgrim setting out, setting forth…on an adventure in renewal, a perpetual beginning, a rebirth of wonder.”                                                                                                                    —Edward Hirsch.

Before we talk about how to unpack a poem, I want to address the issue of whether poems are “open to interpretation.”  So picture this:  A politician says, “I won’t support this bill because it will hurt the middle class.” You hear that and maybe you think, “Yeah, right. You won’t support the bill because if you do, the people who elected you won’t vote for you next time, and you’ll lose your cushy job.”

Or this: You ask a professor a simple question about quadratic equations and she spends half an hour tracing the origin of mathematics through the middle ages. So you think (but are too polite to say), “This is about math, not about you. Stop showing off.”

What do these incidents have in common? In each case, someone interpreted someone’s words differently than what they  seemed to say.  We could offer multiply examples of this  because language can always mean more than what it literally says.  We humans learn from a very early age how to differentiate what is said from what is meant.  In fact,  all language, even this paragraph, is by its very nature open to different understandings.   

It is the job of poets to exploit the inherent ambiguities and multiple meanings of language in order to create their poems. They do this on purpose, with specific intentions, in order to enrich their art AND move closer to the truth (which is often ambiguous).  So in this sense,  all poetry is open to interpretation.


Not all interpretations are equal.  Interpretations that are based on a  close reading of the text are more defensible, and likely to be more accurate, than those that are based simply on how the reader feels or what the reader believes.  In this course we will emphasize  learning to pay close attention to the text as you read so that you can support your interpretations with direct quotes from the text.   


(from SUNY:  https://milnepublishing.geneseo.edu/naming-the-unnameable/chapter two)

Poet Muriel Rukeyser says in The Life of Poetry that in order to successfully read a poem, we must give a poem “a total response” and to come “to the emotional meanings at every moment.”   This sounds daunting.  Let’s break it down.  
First of all, when we read poetry, we need to give it all of our attention, taking it in slowly, reading it several times. This involves listening to the poem openly, without judgment, and without projecting our own assumed meanings onto it.  That can be hard to do. 
We need to adjust what we think it means whenever a swerve or contradiction occurs, recognizing that  each poem creates its own universe from line to line.  We breathe in what a poet breathes out; her words and their meanings become part of our body, triggering sensations that lead to thoughts. Through this process, we have experiences that are new, that change us as any other experience can.

By using ancient elements like tone, rhythm, and sound, poetry produces an experience that can shape a reader’s physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual experience.  SUNY poetry teacher Anthony Piccione says,  “A poem is what a poem does.” This is why we must read poems with full concentration and focus more than once. It is why we read them out loud. It is why we pa attention to every aspect of the poem on both ends: as a writer, and as a reader.

How to “Unpack” a Poem

Start with the Title

The title sets up an expectation for the poem in us. A title can set a mood or tone, or ground us in a setting, persona, or time. It is the doorway into the poem. It prepares us for what follows. What is the first word that comes to mind when you read the following title:

    • “The Insistence of Beauty”

Maybe the word that comes to mind is Art or Philosophy or Contemplative.  Maybe it’s fashion or movie star.    As you read on, the poem may fulfill your expectation…or it may swerve into unexpected territory.  Either way, the poet deliberately uses the title to advance his or her meaning.

Read it First Out Loud 

As you read the following poem out loud, be aware of how it  affects you emotionally.  Listen for the tone, mood, and style.  Identify your first impressions.

The Insistence of Beauty

The day before those silver planes
came out of the perfect blue, I was struck
by the beauty of pollution rising
from smokestacks near Newark,
gray and white ribbons of it
on their way to evanescence.

And at impact, no doubt, certain beholders
and believers from another part of the world
must have seen what appeared gorgeous—
the flames of something theirs being born.

I watched for hours—mesmerized—
that willful collision replayed,
the better man in me not yielding,
then yielding to revenge’s sweet surge.

The next day there was a photograph
of dust and smoke ghosting a street,
and another of a man you couldn’t be sure
was fear-frozen or dead or made of stone,

and for a while I was pleased
to admire the intensity—or was it the coldness?—
of each photographer’s good eye.
For years I’d taken pride in resisting

the obvious—sunsets, snowy peaks,
a starlet’s face—yet had come to realize
even those, seen just right, can have
their edgy place. And the sentimental,

beauty’s sloppy cousin, that enemy,
can’t it have a place too?
Doesn’t a tear deserve a close-up?
When word came of a fireman

who hid in the rubble
so his dispirited search dog
could have someone to find, I repeated it
to everyone I knew. I did this for myself,
not for community or beauty’s sake,
yet soon it had a rhythm and a frame.

“The Insistence of Beauty”, from THE INSISTENCE OF BEAUTY: POEMS by Stephen Dunn. Copyright © 2004 by Stepehen Dunn. Used by permission of W. W.  Norton & Company, Inc.


Write out (very informally) your initial responses to the following questions:

    1. What is my first emotional reaction to the poem?
    2. Is this poem telling a story or just sharing thoughts? Is is playing with language or exploring deep feelings? Is it praising something or offering instruction?  What kind of poem is this?
    3. Is the tone serious? Funny? Meditative? Inquisitive? Confessional? How would you describe the tone after just one reading?

Look at the Images 

Go back and read the poem a second time, paying attention to the images and specific words.  Stop at the end of each stanza to ask yourself what is going on and how you are responding. Notice if lines offer contrasting or contradictory images.  For instance,  the first two lines describe something beautiful, while the second two evoke pollution, which we usually don’t consider beautiful.

The day before those silver planes
came out of the perfect blue, I was struck
by the beauty of pollution rising
from smokestacks near Newark

As we move on to other images in the the poem–“gray and white ribbons,”  “a man you couldn’t be sure
was fear-frozen or dead or made of stone”–we begin to look at the issue of beauty from an entirely different place.  We sense that something catastrophic has occurred….and yet the speaker seems to say that even in destruction, Beauty can be present.

Identify the Tone

In the second line, the phrase “I was struck” introduces the speaker, who is someone capable of seeing the beauty in pollution–in other words, a person who sees things differently. This image reverses our assumptions and makes us ask how smog rising from smokestacks can be beautiful.  Perhaps it even makes us think back to the title, “The Insistence of Beauty.”  Maybe we wonder: Can anything be beautiful?

Tonally, the words “perfect” and “struck” stand out for different reasons in the first two lines—one for meaning, one for sound. When something is “perfect” we feel admiration, maybe the need to protect it. Since nothing really is perfect, it also sounds a little romantic, subjective, or too good to be true, which may also produce tension as we know perfection isn’t real, or doesn’t last. The word “struck” is a harsh, violent, physical word. And ending the line on it emphasizes it even more. To be struck by something suggests shock, surprise, immediacy, and change.

In addition to these two words, the first phrase sets a tone, too, of expectation. We know something significant is being made of the planes because they are marking a day: “The day before those silver planes.” The event is important enough to refer to it in such a way. This is how we speak of big events. The day we were married. The day we went swimming. The day those silver planes came out of the blue.

The tone in the first stanza immediately produces a connection between the speaker and reader. We feel the speaker is disclosing something to us, or divulging something important. As we continue through the poem the speaker’s tone becomes inquisitive as he asks questions:

—or was it the coldness?—

that enemy,
can’t it have a place too?

Doesn’t a tear deserve a close-up?

Is he asking questions of the reader? To himself? A bit of both? We journey with him on his seeking.Read through Dunn’s poem and identify the rest of the images. Discuss how each image makes you feel. To what words or images is your attention drawn? What associations do you make from them?

Find Connections and Ask Questions

The next helpful question is: What does this word or image remind me of? What associations am I making as I read this poem?  Sometimes the connections are within the poem—between lines, images, repeated words or themes–—but in some poems like this one, we may be reminded of something outside the poem. In the first stanza, the two planes near Newark and two ribbons evaporating may remind you of the iconic image of the September 11th attacks on The World Trade Center in New York City.  Making this connection provides us with a context for the poem, perhaps causing us to ask, “How can the attacks on the World Trade Center and its subsequent collapse be seen as gorgeous?”

What happens if you don’t see that connection? Will you misread Dunn’s poem? Allusions like this usually aren’t necessary if the poem makes good use of all the other elements of poetry. In other words, even if you miss the reference to 9/11, you should be able to understand Dunn’s deeper meaning about the nature of  Beauty from the various images he provides.   Let’s for a moment pretend that the poem isn’t alluding to specific events. If we begin to make connections within the poem itself, we may see that the ribbons in the first stanza appear beautiful to the speaker even though they are pollution, and the flames in the second stanza appear “gorgeous”  even though they are destructive. This suggests that it’s possible to see beauty in something harmful, in something that others see as ugly. This further suggests that beauty is subjective, though the ability to see it is universal.

What other connections and patterns can we see?  In the third stanza the speaker watches the collision “replayed”—be it on a television screen or in his mind—and admits to a desire for revenge. Later, in the last stanza, the speaker repeats the story of the fireman: “I repeated it / to everyone I knew.” What does this suggest? He says “I did this for myself, / not for community or beauty’s sake, / yet soon it had a rhythm and a frame.” How are we to understand the impact of his repeating his story? If it is told “for myself,” then what exactly is the speaker getting from this and how is it connected to the replaying of the collision? What might be meant by rhythm and frame?

In the fourth and fifth stanza the speaker makes a connection between himself admiring “the intensity” of the people in the photographs and between the photographers taking the photographs:

The next day there was a photograph
of dust and smoke ghosting a street,
and another of a man you couldn’t be sure
was fear-frozen or dead or made of stone,

and for a while I was pleased
to admire the intensity—or was it the coldness?—
of each photographer’s good eye.

The speaker asks, “Was it the coldness?”, suggesting a distance or lack of emotion in photographers who cannot act on their emotions in order to capture the moment. The speaker says that he admires this, “the intensity—or was it the coldness?— / of each photographer’s good eye.” Perhaps he sees something admirable in the way a person can detach himself from an event in order to focus only on the image, the visual, the camera’s eye with a “good eye” that can see art and capture it.

In the fifth and sixth stanzas, the speaker muses on how he’s reacted to beautiful things in the past just as coldly as these photographers: “For years I’d taken pride in resisting / the obvious—sunsets, snowy peaks, / a starlet’s face.” The pattern of “coldness” is established by several word choices here: “fear-frozen,” “coldness,” “snowy.”  Our speaker then tells us how he discovered that images of “sunsets, snowy peaks, / a starlet’s face,” too, have their “edgy” place. This is a little mysterious. Does “edgy” refer to the destructive, ugly yet mesmerizing collision and photographs he’s been viewing? Is this suggesting that serene beauty and edginess are somehow closely related?

The speaker then introduces the idea of “the sentimental,” which he refers to as “beauty’s sloppy cousin” and asks if it can also be appreciated.  The speaker ends the stanza with another question: “Doesn’t a tear deserve a close-up?”  As readers, we have to ask ourselves how we fear about sentimentality: does it have a place in Beauty?

In the last part of the poem, the speaker confesses that he retells the story about the fireman hiding in the rubble “so his dispirited search dog / could have someone to find.”  The story is moving; our focus shifts from all of the people whom the fireman and his dog cannot help, to the “dispirited” feelings of the dog that the fireman can ease. In this moment, the dog’s feelings  become as important and as worthy as our own. If we can feel such strong empathy toward the dog, as the fireman clearly does, can we not also feel it toward our enemies, toward those for whom we normally feel  “revenge’s sweet surge?” 

The speaker says that he retells this story,  not “for community or beauty’s sake,” but for himself. Why would he do that? Why does it matter that he does? Why does he end the poem with these words?


We will practice “unpacking a poem” in class this week!




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ENG 106 by Michelle Bonczek Evory and Leigh Hancock is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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