How To Read Poetry

Some might say that reading is reading, no matter what the reading material might be.  But consider the difference between reading a cooking recipe and a novel, for example.  You read the recipe to gather information about a process you need to learn quickly, while you read a novel at a slower pace to learn about characters or simply escape into a different reality. 

Different types of literature demand different things from their readers, and poetry is no exception.  You can't possibly read and comprehend poetry if you approach it like a chapter in a school biology textbook.  Poets use a number of literary devices to guide their readers through a journey.  Sometimes that journey can lead to other journeys, but it can also end abruptly at the exit sign.  That is the beauty of well-crafted poetry.

  1. To begin reading a poem, start where the poet wants you to start -- the title. A poem's title is rarely slapped together at the last minute, so use it as an overall guide to the theme of the poem.  Some poets prefer to keep their titles short, while others may choose an impossibly long title as an ironic statement or shorthand introduction.  A good title should help the reader orient himself to the specific themes and ideas of the poem.  Consider the title of TS Eliot's poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" for instance.  From the title alone, you should realize the poem will be romanticized (love song) and perhaps a bit stuffy (J. Alfred Prufrock).  After reading the poem itself, you might want to come back to the title for even more enlightenment.
  2. After reading the title carefully, you'll want to read any dedications, short quotes or epigrams the poet may include.  These short lines borrowed from other sources often give readers even more insight into the poet's inspiration for the poem or a deeper connection to other forms of literature.  Again, poets rarely leave any detail to chance, so there is always a reason why a particular quote is selected or a certain person receives a dedication.  This information is often provided as a footnote after the poem.
  3. Once you've had a chance to orient yourself to the poem, read it through completely one time without stopping.  Allow the words to create tangible imagery in your head, much like a descriptive passage in a novel.  It is not unusual to hear a different narrative voice in your head while reading poetry.  Many readers will hear the accent or other distinctive characteristics of the poet as they read.  Some poems are written completely in a dialect, so you may have to sound out the words in the way the characters might speak them.
  4. After you've read the poem completely, consider your immediate responses.  Did the poem make you angry or sad or inspired?  Did the images offend you in any way or did they enlighten you?  Modern poetry tends to work on the principle of a short, sharp shock or a quick Zen sting.  Modern poets try to make their point through condensation of emotions and an ironic or serious undertone.  The endings of many modern poems are designed to snap the reader out of his or her comfort zone.  It is this first, raw reading that is often the most memorable for the reader.
  5. When you're ready, read the poem again.  Pay attention to those lines that spoke most directly about the poem's theme.  Look for the use of literary devices that particularly impressed you.  Was there a regular rhythm and rhyme scheme that carried you along?  Did the lines create and release tension in a satisfying way?  Sometimes a poorly constructed poem fails because it does not push the reader hard enough.  Did you feel disconnected from the poem because of the predictable language or poor choice of subject?
  6. After reading the poem several times, you may want to do some research on the poet's personal life and influences.  Reading a poem by ee cummings may seem like an impossible exercise, with all of those quirky lines and odd punctuation, but knowing he wrote during the height of the Jazz Age can help you figure out the method behind the madness.  Knowing why a poet's major works seem depressing or satirical or humorous can help you interpret other works by that author.  Reading poetry doesn't have to be the tortuous literary biology project it might have been in high school and college.  Good poetry can provide life lessons not easily found in other forms of literature.


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