Step One: Look at the signs making up the first word. Identify what each individual sign is based on which signs they aren’t. Acknowledge the order these signs are written in, and then take in the whole word.

Step Two: Identify the language the word is written in, and find the image in your mind that that particular word correlates to in said language. This will be explained in more detail in Step Three.

Step Three: Identify the meaning of the word based on comparison and contrast. Let’s pretend the word is ‘baseball’. A ball is a round spherical object. A baseball is not a basketball because it is not called a basketball, so it must be another kind of ball. This will be done quickly and automatically for most words.

Step Four: Continue to read through the poem. You must be aware that the letters and sounds forming the words mean nothing– it is only through analyzing in the above fashion that you will find any coherent meaning.

Step Five: Note the order the words are written in, and base a conclusion on the understanding of these words and what they mean when put together. Continue to read the poem this way so that it creates a coherent total.

Going by these steps, I imagine that a Semiotician would be somewhat annoyed by Shakespeare’s Sonnet 65. Once he/she completed the initial basic steps he/she would find that Shakespeare does not use words based on the meanings one derives via comparing and contrasting similar words. For example, he uses the term ‘summer’s honey breath’ at one point. Based on the above steps, one would find ‘breath’ to mean the air pushed out through the mouth by one’s lungs. It would not mean ‘breeze’ to them because the word ‘breeze’ was not used. Language is extremely technical in this regard, and using the above steps the reader would come to believe that Shakespeare is talking about the season of summer breathing through its mouth breath that smells like honey.

This continues on with other phrases. For example, ‘That in black ink my love may still shine bright’ would result in the analysis that the speaker’s love is actually emitting light from black ink. The problem with these steps is that they are far too literal and do not allow for the connotation of words.

5 Responses to “A Semiotician’s Guide to Interpreting a Poem”

  1.   Kevin L. Ferguson said:

    For step 3–I think you’re right that this mostly happens automatically (without much thought–that might be what we mean when we say we “understand” or “speak” a language). But how do we know when it’s not automatic, or when it shouldn’t be automatic?

  2.   mikadroz said:

    We would know this when we aren’t immediately able to understand the definition of a word. Only then would we pause and attempt to analyze it consciously, at least in my opinion.

  3.   clo120 said:

    As human beings, we automatically tend to put our own experiences into understanding the work. In addition to objectively looking at the words, we must take the whole poem into account for ourselves, and give the lines meaning and focus on connotation.

  4.   egallone24 said:

    The example you use in step 3 is very interesting. The “baseball-basketball” example gets you thinking about the values that the words alone have. Yes, they are both balls, but they represent two completely different things.

  5.   mchan said:

    I think step 3 is one of the strongest steps! If I may add to it, I think it would also be helpful to consider these questions while undergoing step 3: “What does choosing this word over all the other options do for the poem’s meaning? If a similar word were substituted, would the poem change?”

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