Reading Poetry: Some Hints to Help You Read with More Pleasure and Understanding

(for those of us who find, or have found, it difficult)

We live in a culture now that is driven by prose and by video communication. This can make reading poetry--especially that of another time and another culture--difficult; and when something's difficult, the best way to make it unpleasurable is to add the pressure of being evaluated on it in a class. Ours is a mixed course: many students are reading English poetry for the first time, while others are more experienced readers. Given this wide range of experience, I think that we should try to talk in the same language. So, I have included below a relatively basic, traditional way of thinking about poetry. I've accompanied this with some fundamental terminology, which I plan to use consistently throughout the several weeks. Those of you who are already comfortable with poetry and ways of thinking about it should feel absolutely free to go beyond these terms and explore these poems according to your interests.

--Michael Gamer, University of Pennsylvania

A Way of Thinking about Poetry with an Eye to Enjoying It

Prose in its most basic form makes its meaning directly, through the content of the words. It literally attempts to say what it means. Poetry also makes much of its meaning in that way. One of the ways, however, that people have defined poetry over the centuries is that poetry is writing that also makes its meaning less directly, through the sound of the language, through how the words are broken into lines, through metaphor (rather than explanation), and through the poet's ability to say what they do more concisely, eloquently, and rhetorically than what we expect from prose. Now, before you jump up and say that prose does this also, and that not all poetry does these things----I agree with you, especially for 20th century poetry, and in many cases even for the poetry we are studying together. The information below often will apply just as well to short and long prose pieces as it does to poetry. I am hoping, however, that the information below will help to de-mystify poetry and give us all a foundation that we can rely on when we are confronted with a poem that is less accessible than we would like.


Poetry often is meant to be performed, sometimes even with music. So, even if you are not in a private place, or if you feel funny about "performing" a poem by reading it aloud in an aptly dramatic manner, you can at least read it aloud and try to imagine what tones of voice you should use at various lines. So, read the poem through once, check to make sure you have a handle on what it's saying, and then read it two more times experimenting with various voices and poses. Are some lines ironic? sneering? passionate? How does the meaning of various lines change when you change the tone of your voice? Once you have nailed down how the poem should be read, then go one-by-one through the questions below and see if the poet has employed any of these devices in the poem to add to the poem's significance (in other words, what you can make it mean):