Have you ever fallen in love with a song immediately upon hearing it? As soon as it’s over, you whip out your phone to find the song, and then you play it on repeat for the rest of the day until you know every note and lyric. It becomes your current favorite, your latest obsession.
That probably doesn’t happen very often.
Usually when you hear a new song, you feel ambivalent about it. You don’t want to jump out of your chair and start dancing. The song doesn’t make you bang your head. You can’t sing along. You don’t care if you ever hear it again. But then you do hear it again. And on the second listen, you realize, this song isn’t so bad. Then you hear it again and notice an interesting lyric or riff. Then you hear it again and find something in the song that truly speaks to you. After listening to it a dozen times, the song has become one of your favorite pieces of music.
Sometimes we fall in love instantly and other times, things need to grow on us.
The same is true with poetry. If we’re lucky, we encounter a poem that immediately grabs us. But usually we need to spend a little time or make a little effort to truly admire or understand a poem. This isn’t the poem’s fault; in fact sometimes poetry that requires deeper reading offers the greatest payoff.
Anyone can open a book and read lines of poetry, letting the language drift in and out of their mind. When we put some effort into our reading practices, we can create a more enriching and rewarding reading experience for ourselves and become more skilled readers with a greater appreciation for what we’re consuming.
Tips for Reading a Poem
Today I’d like to share some tips for reading poetry. These tips will make the experience better with the ultimate goal of improving your own poetry writing.
- Multiple readings of a poem will reveal its nuances and deepen your understanding of it. Sometimes a poem that seems dull on first reading gains intrigue with additional readings. A poem that seems obtuse becomes clear. A poem that feels hollow becomes deeper and more meaningful. And sometimes you’re just not in the right mood the first time you read a poem, but later it strikes the right chord.
- Keep a dictionary and a poetry reference book handy when you’re reading poetry. Poets are notorious for using unusual words. Instead of skipping over these words or trying to determine their meaning based on context, look them up. Do the same with poetic devices like connotation or metaphors. You may be vaguely aware that there’s a term for two words in close proximity with the same consonant sound (alliteration). Google is your friend! You can also research poetry forms — if you suspect you’re reading a sonnet but you’re not sure, take a moment to look it up.
- Read aloud and listen to the poem (find a recording or video performance, if one is available). Some poems are written to be heard, not read. Other poems have vague structures and hearing a poet’s reading will clarify the poem’s cadence. A reading can even have a subtle effect on a poem’s meaning, depending on where the poet places emphasis or pauses in places that aren’t obvious within the text.
- After you finish reading a poem, take a few moments to contemplate what the poem is about, what it’s saying. Poems often contain layers of meaning. Sometimes these are revealed through multiple readings; other times they are revealed through reflection on a poem.
- Paraphrase poems (rewrite them in your own words) to gain more understanding.
- Ask questions about the poem. What is about? What might have inspired it? Could it be fictional (i.e. not based on the poet’s personal experience)? Does the poem have a purpose? What images did it convey? Was there a message contained within? Did it tell a story? Try to answer the questions you come up with.
- Dig into the poet’s repertoire. Study the poet’s biography and read some of the other works they’ve produced to gain additional insight.
- Critique the poem. What worked well? Was there anything that didn’t work? What did you like or dislike about it? If you didn’t like the poem, was it a matter of personal taste, or could you find something objectively wrong with the poem?
- Keep a journal to track the poets you’ve studied and the poems or poetry collections you’ve read. Use the journal to record your poetry reading practices, words or literary terms you’ve researched, questions you have about the poems, thoughts poems have evoked, your paraphrasing, a few details about the poets and their other works, and your critiques.
There’s no right or wrong way to read poetry, but there is an argument to be made for reading practices that will enrich your experience, increase your enjoyment, and deepen your understanding of any poem.
What are some of your practices for reading and understanding poetry? How often do you read poetry? What are some of your favorite poems and poets? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment, and keep reading poetry!
One of the benefits of reading poetry is development of your personal vocabulary. So don’t relent.Have you noticed that poem readers have a better command of English? And that’s the second points. You will improve in your reading and writing skill. Intact you will understand other poems relatively easy.
I agree: reading poetry can expand our vocabulary while boosting a bunch of other writing skills. Thanks, Deborah.
For me, poetry needs to hook by use of words, by how it looks, short appeals, yet can be long but dense packed lines a turn off – white space well used as much a part of the whole as words. And once reeled in, an inner feeling, conscious of a smile, a frown, a nod of head, re-reading. I take it as is, what it gives to me, critique, way too analytical for me. I like this post, it got me thinking, always a good thing.
Thanks. I’m glad you liked it.
Hi Melissa, I published a linking post to this article, on my blog, and one of my blind followers (who uses special software to ‘read’ ) left the following comment under my post, that I’d like to share with you:
Thanks for sharing this post, Chris. The fields on the comment form (on the original post) are not being picked up by my screen reader, hence I’m commenting here. Its a good post and makes some interesting points. I would add that (in my experience) its not a good idea to read a book of poetry from cover to cover in 1 sitting (assuming that its short enough to do so)! I’ve known readers who have done this and, whilst it may work for a short story, or a very short novel, it does not, in my experience work for poetry, as its important that each individual poem is savoured rather than the reader rushing on to read the next piece, without having fully appreciated the previous composition. I agree that its a good thing to analyse poetry (indeed I often find myself doing so subconsciously). However there is little point (unless one is at school or studying poetry) in analysing a poem if, by so doing one risks losing the enjoyment derived from the sheer pleasure of immersing oneself in the poem. I’d agree with Melisa’s point about not reading poetry (or indeed anything else of importance) when you are tired. Kevin
Thanks, Chris. I’m going to make a note to look into the comment fields not working on a screen reader. I recently upgraded the software here, and my expectation is that it complies with such standards.
I agree with Kevin. Reading an entire book of poetry would not be my preferred method, although others might want to read poetry that way. I think it depends on the poetry, however. Some poems need to be read alone, in all their rich intensity. Others can be read in handfuls. I usually don’t read more than a few at a time, unless I’m doing research or something.
Thanks again for sharing this.
I’m glad you did this piece. Never knew how to analyse(?) poetry before even though I knew the writer was saying more than was on the page. Reminds me of the process of lectio divina,and it explains to me why I should re read parts,poems,and passages. Usually I will read something aloud -even my own writing, to “hear “it better. Thanks for this article. Bookmarking it.🙂
You’re welcome. I’m glad you found something helpful here at Writing Forward.