Wednesday, March 17, 2010

How to Read Poetry

It occurs to me -- right before the test, unfortunately -- that we've lost the art of reading poetry. We read a poem the same way we read a newspaper, and then wonder why we don't get much out of it.

Here, then, is a handy rubric for ways to read poetry. It won't work with everybody, i.e., you'll have a hard time applying it to Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, but it will help get you through.

Step One; Read the title. Yes, I know this is obvious. You'd be amazed at how many people just skip right over it. They read the words, but they don't allow the words to register. Titles are important. "Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner" tells you everything you need to know, right there.

Step Two: Read the poem all the way through, out loud, without stopping but with -- and this is REALLY important -- the pauses in the right places, where the punctuation is. Pausing at the end of every line is a common mistake, and it makes the poem more confusing than it has to be. The punctuation is there to guide you, so let it.

Step Three: Stop and register your impression of what was said. Make a note if you need to. You'll probably revise this, but first impressions are important with poetry.

Step Four: Read the poem again, slowly, silently, and make sure you know what all the words mean. Ask yourself the following questions:
  • Who is the speaker?
  • What is the setting?
  • What is happening, or being discussed, in the poem?
  • What kind of rhyme or meter does the poem have?
  • Does anything strike you as symbolic, or metaphorical?
  • What tone does the poem have -- joyous, melancholy, playful, serious?

Step Five: Paraphrase. Put the poem in your own words. It proves that you understand it. Be careful not to change the meaning, though. If you can't paraphrase part of it, then you know you don't understand that part. If you can't paraphrase ANYTHING, repeat steps one through four, expecting different results. (Isn't that the definition of madness?)

If we did this with, say, "In a Station of the Metro," we might discover that we have no idea who the speaker is (that's Modernism for you), the setting is a Parisian subway stop, people are walking past, the poem has no rhyme scheme, and there's a metaphor here, but it's purely visual. The tone of the poem is artsy, and we might paraphrase it by saying "The pale, blank faces of people getting off the trains look just like the petals of blossoms on a wet tree branch."

Admittedly, this takes all the charm right out of it, but you could argue that Pound doesn't have a lot of charm to begin with. It still helps.


  1. Well I guess poetry isn't for the likes of me. I'm not a creature of effort and fear that if I follow these steps (and surely into madness), that i might have to think a little.(Insert sarcastic grin here). I actually appreciate the tips, because its been a long time since I read poetry past beginning to feel a mood. My father late in life decided to be a poet, and modeled himself after Frost. He put a lot of thought and heart into those stumbled over lines, and how many others have, only to be read quickly and without true attempt at comprehension. Americans don't know how to read poetry, we don't know how to think. Frost's poem Mending Wall is a statement about mass human nature, that is as true today as it always has been. "Why think, other generations did that for us." Thank you for explaining out a formula for how to read poetry, because I have had teachers teach poetry, but never teach me how to read poetry.
    It was so much easier to like Carl S.'s Fog after learning about imagism. Until then, I just thought I was stupid, because I didn't know what social hardship the "fog" represented.
    I'll try your "magic algebraic poetry reading formula", and hope there aren't any side effects. Just like any good American, I sue.;)

  2. thank you my poetry sensei. I love poetry and love to write it but I do, have a slight problem with reading it acuratelly. Hopefully this will aid me in my quest for poetic nervana.

  3. These steps may help me read the poetry better, but as for getting the "message" I probably never will. I consider myself, in a literary sense, the least interpretive person ever. It seems like with poetry you can draw almost any conclusion you want to, no matter how off the wall it may seem. death of a ball turret gunner makes sense to me though because it is black and white. There are no gray areas to interpret and draw your own conclusions from; this would be more my preferred style of poetry.

  4. These steps did help me understand the poetry better when we have read poems. I am not a big poetry fan myself, but it is better if you get a better understanding of what you are reading

  5. This blog helped me understand how to look and analyze a poem. Before this class, I would just read poetry and the words had no meaning. Half the time I didn't even understand what I was reading. In my life, I do not enjoy the things I am not good at, so I did not like Poetry. Now that I actually know how to read it, its not as bad as I thought.