How to Read a Poem

Few students read much poetry these days, and may be uncertain about how to approach writings in verse. Here are some simple tips for beginners.

1) Almost all poets want to be understood, and many poems are quite simple to understand. Don't assume that just because some writing has a ragged right-hand margin it's automatically going to be baffling.

2) Try reading the poem out loud. It's amazing how often this simple process makes clear what your eye can't sort out on the page.

3) Read carefully. Read each poem more than once. Look up words you don't know. Poetry is typically more dense than prose, and every word is potentially important. Don't skim. Strategies of speed reading which work with prose will not work with poetry. If there is a section in the poem you don't understand at first, it's very likely to be crucial to understanding the poem's meaning. Keep working at it, using dictionaries, encyclopedias, and other reference sources until you understand all parts of the poem. Don't assume that feelings or associations that emerge hazily from a first reading will turn out to be correct.

4) Start by figuring out the literal meaning of the poem first, before you leap into figuring out the metaphorical language, if any. Try translating what the poem says into simple prose first to make sure you understand it at a very basic level. If you can't explain what the poem is saying literally in prose you probably haven't understood it yet. More advanced analysis of the poem's language comes later.

5) Be aware of genre: types of poetry. If the book or teacher tells you you're reading a carpe diem poem you need to know not only that this is a Latin phrase meaning "seize the day" but that 99% of all carpe diem poems are addressed by horny men speaking to young women, trying to pressure them into having sex.

6) Beware of religious interpretations. A poem by Donne, Crashaw, or Milton may be Christian, but not every poem using religious language is religious. A "Lord" can be a king, a lover, or a husband, and does not necessarily refer to God. Unless you know for sure that the poem is religious, don't assume it is.

7) Be ready to change your mind about the meaning of a poem. Just because experts sometimes differ in their interpretations of poem you cannot assume that all opinions are equal. A valid opinion needs to be backed up by evidence. If it turns out that a word has an important meaning other than the one you know about, be ready to learn that. Even though you may have a really strong feeling about a poem, it's evidence that counts in literary analysis, not just subjective feelings. A valid interpretation must take into account all parts of a poem.

8) Read lots of poetry. The first poem you read comparing a woman to a rosebud may not mean much to you until you realize that this is a very old tradition involving thousands of poets, almost all of whom are stressing that a young woman should make love before she gets too old and "wilts" like an overblown rose. Poets allude to and build on other poets all the time. You need to listen in on their conversation for a while before you pick up the patterns.

9) Read any notes or introductory matter that accompany the poem. If you don't read my notes to Virgil's Ecologue II, you may embarrass yourself by discussing the poem as if it were about a man addressing a woman because you won't know that "Alexis" was strictly a man's name in the classical era. It's a homosexual love poem.

10) After you've figured the poem out, go back and read it aloud again. Now you should be able to enjoy it. Poems aren't designed primarily to be studied, but to be read and enjoyed. Pleasures worth working at in life include playing chess, appreciating fine wines, and reading poetry. Don't expect it to "come naturally." Give it a chance.

Paul Brians
August 31, 2005

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