Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Top Ten Tips for Reading Poetry

Hey everyone. It's been a long time since I've done Top Ten Tuesday, but since this week is a choose-your-own-topic sort of week, I thought this would be the perfect time for a post I've been wanting to write recently. As someone who loves poetry, it sometimes makes me sad to see that most people, even bookish people, almost never read poetry. One of the complaints I hear a lot is that people "don't understand" poetry, so I decided to give my Top Ten Tips for reading, analyzing, and enjoying poetry, in hopes that more people would decide to pick up a poem every now and then. So, without further ado, here is my list.

Emily's Top Ten Tips for Reading Poetry

1. Just enjoy it. Really. I hear a lot of people saying that they hate analyzing novels, that they prefer to just read them and enjoy them. But for some reason when it comes to poetry, those same people get so caught up in analyzing that they forget to just read the poem and enjoy it. Poems may be in an unfamiliar format, but they are just as lovely and enjoyable as novels. So get lost in the language, the story, and the images, and leave the analyzing for poems you already enjoy.

2. Paraphrase it. This might seem like the simplest thing, but for me this is always the first step when I look at a poem. Think up a simple paraphrase that describes the action of the poem. Try to leave out all metaphors or interpretations; just tell yourself what literally happens. Depending on the poem, this can be harder than you think. You'd be surprised how much this can help you get a clear picture so you can move on to later steps.

3. Look at the road map. The first thing I look at after I paraphrase a poem is where it starts and where it ends. This can give you a sense of the poem's trajectory and help you see what some of the themes may be. The Lake Isle of Innisfree by W.B. Yeats, for instance, both starts and ends with the speaker in a city dreaming of Innisfree, with the middle being the specifics of his dreams. This makes the poem rather circular, starting and ending in the same place, and shows us that the speaker never really gets to that cabin. Innisfree is a daydream, a goal that the speaker never fulfills. This poems is a poem about yearning and longing more than it is about Innisfree itself. We get all that just from looking at the road map. (Did you listen to the recording at that link? That's Yeats reading the poem, and it's fabulous. Go ahead, I'll wait.)

4. Look at the map of each stanza. Once you've looked at the overall road map, look at the map for each stanza or section. In Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost, the first three stanzas start with something belonging to society (the owner of the woods, the horse, the bells) and end with the woods. The last stanza reverses that pattern, starting with the woods that the speaker desires and ending with the speaker's obligations in society. This structure shows us the constant pull and tug between our love for beauty, solitude, idealism, or even death, and the obligations of society, practicality, and real life. Each stanza, by nature of its structure, gives us that conflict in miniature.

5. Look for the oddities. Is there are part of the poem that stands out as different from the rest? An image that doesn't seem to fit? A part where the meter or rhyme-scheme breaks? A part that rhymes in a non-rhyming poem? Does the poet repeat lines? These are all oddities, and they are all good places to ask yourself "Why is this here?" Why, in Emily Dickenson's I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died, does the last line repeat the word "see?" Why, in Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening does Frost repeat the last line? These are great questions to ask yourself as you are reading, and they can often yield the best insights.

6. Look at the extras. When reading a poem, don't forget to look at the extra things, like the title, epigraph, or dedication. My favorite example for this is The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot. The epigraph is a quote from Dante in which a damned person in hell tells Dante that he will only confess his story to him because he knows that no-one will hear it, since no-one can ever leave hell. What does this mean for our poem? Is Prufock in hell? Does he think that no-one will ever hear his monologue? And how does this fit the title, which calls the poem a love song? Clearly, the title and the epigraph give us a lot to think about. Similarly, the epigraph in The Waste Land references the Sybil, a prophetess, who is an old shriveled husk of a person who only wants to die. If that doesn't give us a way to interpret the poem, I don't know what does.

7. Look at the images. This may seem obvious, but it's surprising how many people forget to really look at the images and take them seriously. Even the simplest things can be helpful. Is the poem set in a city, or in nature? Are the images realistic, or idealized? Are there stereotypical images, like a rose or the speaker's beloved? If so, are they described in a traditional way, or does the poet play with our expectations? Let's go back to The Lake Isle of Innisfree for a minute, and look at the second stanza. In the description of Innisfree, the speaker says "There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow." Look at that imagery for a second. Is there anything weird about that? Why is midnight glimmering and noon purple? Don't those images seem a little backwards to you? I take that description to be the first truly dreamlike description in the whole poem, a hazy and imprecise image that reminds us that the speaker is not in Innisfree, but is only imagining it.

8. Read for connotation. This is, to me, the most interesting and fruitful thing that you can do after you've looked at the big picture. Pick an important word in the poem, and ask yourself, why did the poet choose that word rather than a synonym? As a hint, in good poetry the answer is almost never "because it rhymed." Instead, the poet is using the word's connotative value, the value that it has outside its literal dictionary definition. So, in In a Station of the Metro by Ezra Pound, why does he use "apparition" instead of "appearance" or any other synonym? Apparition connotes a ghost or some other spiritual phenomena, and gives the image an otherworldly nature that "appearance" wouldn't have captured. It also gives it a sense of time, as an apparition is something that appears and fades relatively quickly. In such a short poem especially, the connotative value of each word is very important.

9. Look at the form. As you're looking at each stanza, you should notice if the poem follows some regular form or if it is in free verse. If it is in a regular form, the poet probably chose it for a reason. If the poem is a sonnet and it wasn't written around the time of Shakespeare, maybe the poet is trying to connect with tradition or prove their skill as a poet. If it is in a ballad meter, maybe they are trying to reference typical ballad subjects or themes, or have been influenced by hymns. If the poet is using an envelope stanza (quatrain with abba rhyme scheme) they could be referencing In Memoriam by Tennyson, and the poem could be a kind of elegy or memorial. Looking at these traditional forms can give the reader a hint as to what the poet might have been thinking.

10. Do minor research. Now, I know this sounds scary, but stick with me here. If a poem references something or someone who you don't know, look it up. You'd be surprised how helpful that can be. While you don't need to know the source of every single allusion in The Waste Land, it is good to know who Philomel is. If you're reading Leda and the Swan by W.B. Yeats, you should make sure you know who Leda is. But beyond that, it's sometimes interesting to look up the authors of poems and learn a little bit about them. I looked at The Waste Land completely differently after learning about T.S. Eliot's awful marriage and mental breakdown. W.B. Yeats was involved in the Irish revolt against England, and that shows up a lot in his poems, as do his unusual spiritual beliefs. Sometimes it's helpful to look up what school or movements a poet is associated with, and see how their poems fit with and diverge from those ideas. Sometimes it's interesting to read a poet's poetics and see how they apply to their actual poetry. Research doesn't have to be scary. Sometimes it is incredibly helpful and surprisingly fun.

As you can probably tell, I could talk to you about reading poetry forever, but I think these ten tips are a great place to start with a poem that confuses you, delights you, or makes you want to look at it more deeply. And remember, the most important thing about reading poetry is to enjoy it. Enjoy the beautiful language, vivid imagery, and interesting ideas, and use these tips only to further your love and appreciation for good poetry.

Happy Reading!


  1. 10 reasons I loved this post:

    1. It's helpful.
    2. It's thoughtful.
    3. It shows that the author loves poetry.
    4. It shows that the author knows a good deal about poetry.
    5. It gave me material for further reading.
    6-10. T.S. Eliot.

    1. Aww, thank you. I'm glad I could be helpful and that I gave you some reading suggestions. I do really love poetry. I'm so happy to find someone else who loves T.S. Eliot. Have you read The Four Quartets? It is probably my favorite piece of literature.

    2. I used to obsess over Burnt Norton and, especially, East Cooker. (Twenty years largely wasted trying to use words - Oh, Eliot!) I have no recollection of the last two and I have no idea why. That must be remedied!

    3. Oh. My. Gosh. Yes. That part of East Coker is pure perfection. I think you just made my day.

    4. We should do something for Eliot. He's dead and we can't crochet him a vest (crocheting stuff for writers = acceptable form of review, especially if you have to learn to crochet first), but he should have an appreciation site of some sort, possibly with other modernists. I'm seriously considering this as a project.

    5. I absolutely agree. If I could crochet Eliot a vest I totally would. I just finished taking a class on the modernists, and I'm doing an independent study on them this upcoming semester. They're sort of my thing right now. If you ever start this project I'd be happy to help and/or contribute.

  2. Step one is near impossible when every piece of poetry I read is with school, where the whole point is to pick at everything! Sometimes it ruins the poem, but sometimes it makes me understand and therefore appreciate it more. Tip ten sounds, surprisingly, fun! Great tips, Emily.(:

    1. I totally understand the problem of reading poetry in class. Sometimes I have trouble forming coherent thoughts about a poem because I find it so beautiful that all I can say is "this is awesome." That's not exactly class-worthy insight. I started thinking of these tips as a way for me to analyze poems for a class on Modern Poetry. Now it's something I use on things outside of class as well. And step 10 secretly is a lot of fun! Thanks for stopping by. :)

  3. Emily, nice to find your blog. (I got here via your mother's facebook page, I read her blog and was in a quilting bee group with her.)

    This is a delightful post. Very succinct and well said. And it's always great to find a fellow lit major blogger.

    Ria xo, re Step 1: Do you know Billy Collins' poem 'Introduction to Poetry'? So good! (http://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/001.html)

    Also, I'm with Claudia: T.S. Eliot!!!! My favorite poet ever. The Four Quartets are the best. I have started writing a very humble series of blog posts dedicated to The Wasteland (haven't got very far yet; but I'll keep plugging away.) I'd love it if you'd drop by sometime and leave a comment since it's sort of a group effort at reading the poem and not meant to be a solo endeavor.

    And I do love Innisfree too and had never heard Yeats reading it before. That was a treat (even though I think he reads it all wrong).

  4. That's a fantastic list. When my friends claim that they hate poetry, I often wonder if they just don't care to understand it. Usually they can name at least two poems that they adore!

    I'm a huge poetry fan - I was raised on the stuff!

    New GFC follower

    My Top Ten

  5. Love it. Thanks so much for posting. I've tweeted the link. Would love for you to stop by my Top Ten (not nearly as insightful or instructional as yours).

  6. What a great post! I don't read poetry as much as I'd like, because there always seems to be so much going on that I'm missing, but these tips are really great. You could have taught my intro to poetry class (and probably done a better job)!

  7. I think your Top Tips for Reading Poetry are terrific. It is very user friendly. Thanks for the tips.

  8. Ok, I have no excuse for only having read this just now, but such is life. You don't have my own tip (unless it's covered in #1), which is to read it aloud (even, or especially, to yourself). The sound, and even the mouth feel, of perfectly-chosen words, is just delightful.

    Your tips also highlight why I do not consider myself a poet. It takes a lot of work to write poetry that is enhanced by the use of your tips; mine rarely or never reward such scrutiny. I all too often choose a word "because it rhymes", and usually choose a rhyme and meter scheme without any (or much) consideration given to the history of the form, or much else for that matter.

    Don't get me wrong; I like what I write. I love poetry, but don't write it. I am exceedingly glad that others are willing to put in the work to write real poetry. (And for that matter, the work to advise others on how to read real poetry.)

  9. What a lovely post. I do enjoy poetry, but there are so many novels I want to read that I don't read half as much as I'd like- or should, as a Lit student. These tips are really helpful ( though perhaps there should be a disclaimer: do not try tip n°2 on Mallarme. Ever).

  10. I wish this was s bookmark so I could keep it handy in a poetry book. We have just started having a poetry tea time in our homeschool and thiese will be helpful as we begin our exploration.