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How To Read a Poem

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Just because it carries the name “poetry,” just because it’s supposed to be denser and more difficult than “ordinary” prose, just because it’s constructed with special poetic “tricks,” a poem can seem intimidating to the reader who approaches it. Here are a few approaches and attitudes to keep in mind when you come to read a new poem.
Time Required: Five minutes, an hour, a week....

Here's How:

  1. Remember That a Poem Is a Communication
    Just because it’s called “poetry,” a poem is not necessarily more difficult to read than a story or an essay or a newspaper article—in fact, some poems are easier to read than just about anything else. There’s a reason we start teaching kids to read with nursery rhymes and simple stories told in rhyme. A poem is fundamentally a communication, perhaps not as straightforward as a command or an unembellished story, but its purpose is to connect poet and reader/listener and share an idea or a feeling or an experience across that connection.
  2. Keep an Open Mind for First Impressions
    When you first approach a new poem, just read it. Don’t feel you must “crack the code” the first time through. One of the great things about poems is the way they open up in repeated readings, revealing deeper understandings and richer echoes each time you pass through again. But you can only experience one first-time reading, and if you empty your mind of preconceptions before you start, you give the poem leave to work its particular magic and to surprise you. Read the whole poem through just to see what happens, without trying to make any judgments about it.
  3. Reread the Poem Right Away
    While the first reading is fresh in your mind, reread the poem. This time around you can ask some questions that will help you formulate your understanding of the poem: Is it telling a story? Is it making an argument? Who is the speaker? Who is the audience? Is there one particular image or metaphor that stands out? Are there memorable repetitions, or rhymes, or rhythms? Does the poem have turning points—a moment of climactic change in the trajectory of events if it’s a narrative poem, or a crucial change in mood or attitude, or a move from one speaker to another?
  4. Read the Poem Aloud
    Poetry has its roots in human speech—the oral tradition of poems goes back to the dawn of human culture, well before the invention of writing or printing. And many poems create their effects in the interplay of sound and sense, so that unless you read the poem out loud, you will miss most of the poetry. You read the poem aloud to hear the individual words, the vowel and consonant sounds, the rhymes and rhythms and speed changes, the slight pauses where your breaths or the line breaks fall.
  5. Think About the Poem’s Form and Language
    Is the poem shaped in a particular poetic form? What does it look like on the page? Does it use a special vocabulary, or a particular kind of language—academic, vernacular, dialect, slang, etc.?
  6. Memorize the Poem
    You might be tempted to paraphrase the poem, to write a summary of what it’s “about”—but a poem is much more than its “meaning” and such an explanation diminishes it. You’re better off memorizing the poem, or at least a favorite part of it. The process of memorizing lines of poetry shows you a great deal about how they work, and owning a poem in your memory makes it available for the repeated experiences that open up its inner riches.

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