How to Read Poetry When Your Teacher Assigns It for Homework

This page is not about analyzing poetry. It's about reading it. In most literature classes, when people discuss poetry, they analyze it. Since that's all most people have done with poetry, when they try to read it on their own -- when they're reading it for homework, for example -- they jump straight to analysis. But analyzing a poem without reading it is like analyzing a movie without just watching it once. As movie watchers, you know that in order to understand a movie, you have to experience it. And that means watching it, enjoying, and getting lost in the film's world. Once you've done that, then you can step back and analyze it, if you so choose. The same it true for poetry. But while most people in 21st century America are experts at watching movies, few have much experience with reading poetry. The goal of this page is to help make reading poetry easier. It's about what I expect students to do with poems when I ask them to read them for homework.

1. What is poetry?

2. What does poetry do?

3. The "Deep hidden meaning" myth.

4. Why read poetry?

5. How is poetry entertaining?

6. How do you read poetry? (11 basic steps to reading a poem)

7. Now you can analyze it, if you want.

1. What is poetry? This can be a tricky question. Every poet seems to have his or her own definition of poetry. Usually, though, the poet is just describing his or her poetry. So let's keep it simple: Poetry is language organized by rhythm. This definition may not cover every single poem, but it covers the vast majority of poems and all the best poems. Notice what this definition talks about. Language and rhythm. It doesn't talk about emotions or feelings.

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2. What does poetry do? It does just about anything that prose can do.

Poems can entertain people.

Poems have been used to celebrate (many hymns start out as poems, as did the "Star Spangled Banner").

Poems can help people learn and remember things. In preschool, my son learned not to squirt glue all over the paper by memorizing this short poem:
"A drop, a drop, a drop will do
Any more is too much glue."

Then in kindergarten he learned to write numbers by memorizing this poem:
"A straight line down makes a one
Writing numbers can be fun!"

Poems can sell things -- ideas or products -- make arguments, and teach values. Poetry isn't just the emotional expression of the author.

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3. The "deep hidden meaning" myth. Most people think poems are written with some "deep hidden meaning." They're not. Some poems may be riddles, but that's not the same as a deep hidden meaning.

The "deep hidden meaning" people get from poems comes from literary analysis. And we can subject any piece of writing to that. We can analyze a political speech, an advertisement, history book, or a letter from your girlfriend or boyfriend. Literary poetry, though, is condensed. Good poetry is rich and suggestive. So ideally, a line of poetry says a lot more than the same amount of prose, and analyzing a poem should give you a lot more than analyzing an advertisement. But that doesn't mean the poet hid the meaning in the poem.

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4. Why read poetry? Entertainment. Poems can make you laugh, cry, smile, think, brood -- the same kinds of things movies, songs, or paintings can do. But poetry is an art form that we're not familiar with today. So we have to learn to appreciate it, just the way that Anne Bradstreet, were she suddenly transported to our world, would have to learn how to watch a movie. And just as some movies are more difficult than others, some poems are easy to read and follow, while others require more attention. (Most films are pretty easy to figure out, but some films, such as Barton Fink, or Arnold Schwarzenegger's Last Action Hero, or Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction take a little more thought to follow. In the same way, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poetry tends to be easy to read, but T. S. Eliot's poetry is more difficult. Note: though many critics act as if complexity is always a good thing, complexity and quality are not the same thing.)

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5. How is poetry entertainment? Poetry is the ultimate art for people who like language. In poems, poets try to express ideas or feelings, convey experiences, or describe things in language that follows some kind of form (e.g. rhyming couplets). As we read a poem, sometimes we enjoy the sound of the language itself. Here's an example of a poem that is pure sound:

Susie asado is a told tray sure
A lean on the shoes this means slips, slips hers. -- Gertrude Stein

Usually, though, we read a poem for what it says: the content. In the best poetry, both the language and the content are fresh and original.
In literature classes, however, the focus is almost exclusively on the content. But as you read the poem before class, read it out loud; hear it.

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6. How do you read poetry? Poetry is written to be heard. In the 1800s, it was common for people to get together and read poetry to each other.

The poem wasn't simply a piece of language that conveyed data; it was meant to be heard the way a song was meant to be sung.
In order to read poetry well, though, you need to know a little about prosody. Prosody is the theory of rhyme and meter.
Knowing prosody is to poetry what reading sheet music is to music.

Poems can be broken down into 3 parts.

  • The Stanza: a group of lines set off from the other lines in a poem. The poetic equivalent of a paragraph.
    In traditional poems, the stanza usually contains a unit of thought, much like a paragraph.
  • The line: a single line of poetry.
  • The foot: a syllable or a group of 2 or 3 syllables. Typically a foot will contain a stressed and an unstressed syllable.

To scan a line of poetry (that means to hear the rhythm) you count the number of feet in a line.
For a beginner, the easiest thing to do is to count the number of stresses. This doesn't always work (some feet contain 2 stresses),
but it will work often enough to give you the feel of the poem, which is all that we're after at this point.

In verse (traditional, formal poetry), there will be a regular pattern to the rhythm. Often, all the lines in a poem will contain the same number of feet.
For example, in a sonnet, all the lines will have 5 feet. In many cases, though, a poet might alternate between lines with 4 feet and lines with 3 feet.
And in other cases, the patterns will be more complex. But unless you are reading free verse, there will be a pattern and you need to identify it.

For a more thorough discussion of prosody, check out Tina Blue's web page "A Beginner's Guide to Prosody: Part 1." or
Timothy Steele's "Introduction to Meter and Form"

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The 11 basic steps to reading a poem

Step 1: Read through the poem to get a sense of it.

Step 2: Identify the sentences and independent clauses (circle the periods, exclamation points, question marks, and semicolons). For some reason, people always forget that poetry is made up of complete sentences.

Step 3: Read a few lines to figure out the meter (figure out how many stresses there are in a typical line).

Step 4: Note the rhyme scheme (look for a pattern).

Step 5: Read the poem out loud. Try to follow the rhythm. If you do this you'll hear where the poet plays with the rhythm. And you'll hear the rhyme scheme.

Step 6: Look up any words you don't understand.

Step 7: Re-read the poem out loud.

Step 8: Mark off any sections in the poem. These sections may be speeches given by a character, discussions of a particular topic, changes in mood, or a new stage of an argument.

Step 9: Re-read the poem.

Step 10: Figure out the tone -- the emotion -- of the poem.

Step 11: Re-read the poem.

So far you haven't done any analysis. But you've got a rich understanding of the poem. You know how it works as verse, and you've probably read the poem the way the poet meant it to be read.

Now you can start on the analysis -- if you like. If you do choose to analyze the poem (or if you are forced into it by your power-mad professor) you will do a better job because you are alert to what the poem says, and where it changes meaning, tone, sound, or rhythm. This will help you zero in on the important moments in the poem.

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