When I studied English at University, I learned to read a text closely, paying attention to words and their meanings, and to try to visualise these words as I read. Visualising words when we read can make the meaning of a poem much clearer, and allow us to understand it in a new way.
These tips will help you practise this too, so you can improve your understanding of poems by visualising what you read:
Focus on particular words and phrases
The secret here is to be patient and go slowly. Rather than trying to pin down the overall meaning of the poem, identify an important phrase, or concentrate on a certain word or expression, and use this as your starting point. You can even begin with the title.
For example we can ask why the words ‘red hazy void’ are used to describe the experience of the narrator of John Thomson’s The Sunbather as he lies on the beach. Why the colour red? Why the sense of haziness? What is meant by the words ‘void’ and ‘oblivion’, which are both used in this poem? We can also ask why the voices the narrator hears from elsewhere on the beach are like ‘scratchings on a pillow’ and why they seem to come from ‘a far off sphere’, or what it means when the speaker ‘melts’ under the hot sun.
Going through a poem slowly and carefully like this takes patience but allows us to remove some of the mystery we find when we first read it, and it allows us to start to make clear pictures of the details of the poem in our minds.
Draw the narrator’s journey
The next step is for you to draw pictures based on the poem. When you do this, you can start to feel that a poem isn’t just a series of words but that it has a shape too, and drawing pictures can allow the story a poem tells to be seen.
Primary students who are asked to draw Wordsworth’s famous daffodils often make them seem human, drawing the flowers with smiling faces as they dance, and this helps them to understand the close connection between the narrator and nature in the poem very quickly and easily.
Explore poems that are based on paintings
Some poems are based on a particular painting the author has enjoyed. For example W H Auden and William Carlos Williams each wrote poems based on Brueghel’s painting of the fall of Icarus.
Try reading these poems, writing about them, and making drawings. After you have done this, you can look at the original painting and compare it with your own drawing. Is Icarus at the centre of your drawing or elsewhere? Does anyone notice or care about his fall?
Use visualisation in your own story writing
A great way to do this is to watch an animated short and then try to write the story yourself.
Many of the Pixar shorts are perfect for this task as they don’t feature any words and force you to focus on the visual techniques that are used to tell the story. At first, this will seem like a challenge, but soon you will have got the hang of using visual descriptions in your writing and will be able to use this technique in your own original stories. You will also find that you understand the visual techniques used by poets and writers you are asked to read much better.
By learning to visualise words as they read, students can approach poetry in a new way. When we use our senses as well as our brains, the story a poem tells becomes a lot clearer. The goal of the visual approach is that a poem no longer seems shrouded in mystery. Using the tools of close reading and visualisation, you come to understand that nothing is truly hidden from the attentive reader.