10 Tips on How to Read (and understand) Poetry

Flashy, fast-paced and noisy TV shows, films, video games and more dominate our daily intake of entertainment. Coupled with that is the quick exchange of ideas on social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Reading, by contrast, is a slow pastime; letting the sentences conjure up a vivid picture in your head can seem particularly cumbersome in comparison, making you feel as though you’re living in slow-motion.

Poetry is even worse. Whereas it is possible to skim prose, skip certain words or even paragraphs, the whole meaning of a poem can be distorted or lost completely when skipped over or taken in too quickly. But poetry surrounds us in our daily lives: whether it be at school or university, via nursery rhymes we teach our children, or even on the daily commute during cultural movements such as Poems on the Underground (provided you’re lucky enough to live in a wonderful city which does such things – beside the constant onslaught of smog).

The result of this clash? The problem is not that poetry is particularly difficult – although it can be – or that poetic language is becoming more archaic by the day – there are plenty of contemporary or nigh-contemporary poets – but that we are gradually, unstoppably, moving towards a society which just doesn’t know how to slow down and take its time to read a poem.

This is a great pity; I would argue that poetry can be enlightening, can teach us about ourselves, can help us feel and experience things otherwise inaccessible to us, and, above all, be fun. But for the reasons named above, I think it might be important to give a rough how-to of poem-reading – and to help you understand it, even if it can appear genuinely difficult.

First of all – why should you bother?

If you’re at school or university, quite simply because it is required of you – but that doesn’t mean you can’t make your own life easier and richer by giving it a fresh shot. For those who are already beyond that stage, it’s more difficult to make a convincing case, of course. You might very well do without poetry in your daily lives. But you might also suggest that you can do without music, films or prose. It’s not about requiring it: it’s about having an additional feed of experience, of joy, an additional pastime you can indulge in. And never forget the origin of many modern songs or film scripts – they themselves are rooted in poetry. Poetry, being the source, is often more passionate, well thought-out, well-structured, and basically more enjoyable than other pastimes, once you’ve gotten used to it. It requires patience, yes. But it is a patience worth persevering in for the sake of appreciating an additional form of art– and once you’ve overcome the initial hurdle it’s completely worth it. I promise. So let’s make ourselves slow down, take time to breathe, and enjoy the pleasures of poetry (unless you’re a poetry nerd from the start – then you’re probably good to go anyway)!

Read the poem aloud, and read slowly

While this might seem like an easy step, it’s surprising how many people just ignore it. Poetry is often written with the sound in mind; working with many sonic devices like rhyme or metre, a poem needs to be heard, rather than read. By reading it out aloud you start appreciating the technique of the poem, rather than treating it like any other piece of writing. In this step, don’t bother about meaning. Instead, try to hear the echoes in the sound or the regularities of the poem’s rhythm. Some pieces of poetry do away completely with sense and focus more on the sound of the rhythm; Edward Lear’s nonsense poetry or Gertrude Stein’s work fall into this category. Reading aloud is really an essential step and the first one to take when trying to get to grips with a difficult poem. If you’re as unfortunate as I am and have the voice of a turtle making love, you can also use YouTube to find recordings by actors or use Pennsound which contains a large database of poets reading their own work. The point is: listen!

Read it again, ignoring line endings to get the sense of the sentences

Some people with little experience with poetry tend to treat the line breaks as though they constitute an entire sentence in its own right. That is not the case, however. Rather, they indicate pauses or breaths to be taken in between the individual lines. It also provides an effect of emphasising the last word in the line. But it usually doesn’t indicate the end of a sentence, although, sometimes, the last word of a line coincides with the last line of the sentence. The idea in this step is to ignore entirely the existence of lines, but only to concentrate on the sentences to get the pure prosaic meaning of the poem. In an easy poem this is probably not necessary, but if it’s highly complex in its syntax or rhetoric then this can help understand the poem. Try to understand the gist and don’t pay attention to the way the poem is broken up.

Look up words you don’t understand

This one should also be a given, but many people don’t seem to do it. In an age where most of us have immediate access to computers, smartphones or tablets, it really shouldn’t be much of an effort just to type the word into google and voilà – there you have it. If you get a dictionary app or are at your desktop computer, it shouldn’t take more than 5-10 seconds per word – and, who would’ve thought, it helps you understand the poem. Of course, the more exotic the diction of a given poem, the more annoying it can get; if a poem has dozens of words unknown to you, you might wish to see if you can gather the meaning from the context, while googling the ones which seem essential but aren’t evident from the text. If there aren’t that many, then there’s really no excuse for laziness – or pride, for that matter.

Paraphrase the statements of the sentences in a way you understand

This point really helps to get to grips with the poem. Take each sentence on its own – or, if it’s an uncomfortably long sentence, take sections of it – and put it in other words. Just get to the basic, clear meaning of the sentence in isolation without any reference to the other sentences. Quite straight-forward, nothing much to say, and it works wonders. Of course, it doesn’t explain the purpose of the sentence within the wider poem, especially when it’s a particularly difficult one – such as Eliot’s The Waste Land or Pound’s Cantos. But in such cases, it’s questionable anyway to what extent one is meant to understand the whole thing as a comprehensive unit. This step might not tell you why a sentence is in the poem – but it certainly helps you understand the basic meaning.

Pay attention to recurring sounds

This mouse is listening attentively

This point is assisted by the ‘reading aloud’ of the poem. Quite simply, it involves paying attention to recurring sounds within the poem. The most obvious are end-rhymes, where the last word of a line rhymes with the last word of another. But it can also occur within the lines (‘internal’ rhyme), or even echoes of other sorts – such as ‘assonance’, which is when only the vowels rhyme, or ‘consonance’, where only the consonants rhyme. When you hear the echo of a sound in a poem, it is often (though not always!) because the poet is attempting to draw your attention to the connection between the two words, thus emphasising them and bringing them into proximity of one another. One example would be ‘The Burning Babe’ by Robert Southwell. He rhymes ‘good’ with ‘blood’ in reference to Christ, in a connection which, taken in isolation, can quite simply mean that Christ has good blood, without openly stating it. Subtleties like this enhance your understanding of the poem and require nothing but an attentive ear. And an appetite for cheese. I’m sure there’s a study somewhere which claims that eating cheese improves hearing…

Pay attention to the metre: are there irregularities?

To find out more about metre, please see my beginner’s guide. Simply put, the selection of a common metre – such as the iambic pentameter – helps set the basic mood or tone of a poem. Using more uncommon metres – such as the trochee – can mean that the poet is deliberately complicating the tone to create a certain effect, as you can read in my post. Most important, however, are irregularities within a regular metre, because they draw attention to specifics in the poem. Sometimes they are, of course, just there for the sake of avoiding the poem sounding dull and metronomic, and irregularities make it more interesting. The best poets, however, couple the interestingness (according to Microsoft Office that is a word!) with meaning, e.g., replacing the first iambic foot with a trochaic foot in an otherwise regularly iambic poem can draw attention to the first word, or indicate a stronger start within the poem. These observations are never conclusive due to the uncertain nature of prosody, but they can support a theory you might have developed by completing the points above. And, being a good, though new, student of poetry, you have of course followed my advice to the letter so far.

Note recurring themes

By this time, you have a pretty good grasp of the plain meaning of the sentences, have read aloud, you’ve paid attention to the sonic suggestions in the poem’s rhythms and echoes, and you know the meaning of each word. With that you can get a good sense of what the poem’s themes are – in other words, you can get close to ‘what the poem is actually about’. This might be quite simple and straight-forward, might even be indicated by the title, or it can be more submerged, hidden beneath uncertainties in the rhythm and only implied by the speaker of the poem. One example of such a cryptic theme would be Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’: on the surface, it’s just about the speaker choosing between two paths. But when considered in light of the whole poem, it seems to be about the importance of making choices in general, and that taking the difficult, less-trodden path can make a great difference. So, by determining the theme you decide what to pay attention to when reading it again, and you use the poem itself to see how it explores that theme.

Don’t assume everything is allegorical

A rose is a rose

Many beginners tend to make the mistake of assuming that everything in every poem is allegorical – that is, to say that x in a poem actually means y. It’s tempting to do: it makes you sound as though you’re ‘getting behind’ what the poet was doing, and as though you’re analysing the poem properly. The fact that most poems deal in metaphors, allegories, similes etc. also makes this seem to be the case. But still: don’t assume you can equate x with y, just because it seems convenient to do. Sometimes a rose is just a rose. It can symbolise love, but it doesn’t have to. By reading a poem AS an allegory you’re forced to make assumptions which might just not be true. Always work with what the text, as a self-contained entity, gives you. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t search for internal metaphors and try to find out for yourself what they could mean – but it does mean that you shouldn’t jump to conclusions. You can’t read the mind of a dead poet – or of a living poet, for that matter. Be humble in your assertions and always see if you can prove what you are claiming via the text.

Realise that not all is supposed to have an underlying meaning; some things are there for the pleasure of the exploration

Related to the previous point, sometimes the poet might not have intended to do anything besides providing a vivid description of an object, a person, a landscape etc. In these cases, the allegory-error is particularly egregious. If you’re unsure, the poet may have been trying to write something beautiful, something to be appreciated – in short, art. Poems aren’t riddles; while intentions and more interesting truths can be found in them, they aren’t designed to be untangled, dissected, pulled through the mill, but to be enjoyed. If you’re unsure as to the ‘deeper meaning’ of a poem, why not just enjoy it for its own sake – for the sake of the images, the descriptions, the senses it evokes, the story it tells? There’s no harm in that. Unless you’re writing an essay. Then please, please try to make an argument based on more than the need to find an argument.

Be confident

Some poems are virtually impenetrable, others seem deceptively easy. In either case, you might be tempted to do away with it and just give up. But I’d urge you not to despair: easy poems might truly be easy, and difficult ones, if you follow these steps, can be understood, even if it requires patience or assistance from other sources. It’s perfectly alright to search the internet for background info – it’s not cheating to seek other readings of poems (although you need to be aware that these, too, are just opinions), and it’s certainly helpful to consider the circumstances of the poets you are reading. If you have a theory and you can prove it with the text, there’s no reason to assume you’re not right. And even if you’re wrong and in a discussion, somebody points this out to you (because we all discuss poems with our friends, obviously), this is the best way to learn more about the craft. Just be confident in forming your opinions and testing the waters – certainly a better pastime than shielding yourself from seeking the truth! Also, never forget to have fun with the poems: in most cases, they are meant to be entertaining.

Common complaint: Why don’t poets write clearer?

One common complaint many newbies of poetry have is that poets don’t write clearly. Why don’t they just bloody well say what they mean? This complaint is most common among school students who spend hours (or at least what to them seems like hours) trying to decipher what a poem is about. But it is based on a misconception: poetry isn’t a philosophical/ political essay; its purpose isn’t (at least usually) to convince you of a particular viewpoint or to communicate a proposition, but rather to give you an experience, enable you to feel something, which can be (but need not be) related to a proposition/ viewpoint. A poem is a work of art and should be treated as such; it is not about telling you the idea of a poet who came up with some profound ‘truth’ while sitting on the toilet. If the poet wanted to teach you about something concrete or convince you of his/ her opinion, he/ she would have written an essay or dissertation, not a form which is inescapably and indubitably a form of art.

Closing words

The beauty of these steps is that the more poetry you read and study in this way or otherwise, the quicker you get – and, at some point, you begin instinctively to hear the connections in sound, understand the rhythmical structure, and the way themes might or might not develop. And the better you get at it, the more joy you get out of reading poetry. So just give it a shot – have fun, for heaven’s sake! It won’t hurt too much. I promise. Don’t sue me if it does.

Was something unclear because I sound like an old grump lecturing about a topic nobody cares about? Then please leave a comment so that I can lecture some more and clarify the points; otherwise, if you enjoyed it, please share it on social media by pressing on one of the tender buttons below.