How to Read Poetry

You probably found your way here after a fight with a poem. You gave it a valiant effort, but at the end, you found yourself buried under clauses and metaphors, lost without the light of meaning. You shrugged and closed the book. The poem didn’t want you to understand. That is the point of poetry, isn’t it? Well, not exactly. Learning how to read poetry is like learning a new language. You need new tools and strategies, different than what you may already be using to read novels. Once you have the right tools, reading poetry will become easier and more fun, and my hope is that you’ll start reading poetry for pleasure instead of just when it’s assigned.

How to Read Poetry, Step by Step

Now before I really dig too far into this, know that this is just a guide for the basics. I’m going to include the kind of stuff I wanted my high school honors American literature students to know. That means there is a huge world of poetry beyond this.

This guide is just for when you’re starting out with poetry interpretation. I don’t want you to look at this and think, Oh my gosh, I’m going to have to do *all that* for every poem I read for the rest of my life?! No. Honestly, cross my heart, you won’t. Once you start practicing, reading poetry will gradually come more naturally, I swear! It just takes a little time.

What you will need:

  • a paper version of your poem, a book you can write in, or a digital version that allows for annotation;
  • the internet;
  • a buddy or teacher.

How to Read Poetry: The Process

  1. Choose a poem. It may be a poem that has been assigned to you, or maybe your friend has shared it, and you want to figure the poem out.
  2. What kind of poem is it? The type of poem it is will give you huge clues to what it’s doing. For example, sonnets often talk about love. Haiku meditate on an aspect of nature. You get the idea.
  3. Next, scan the poem for words that aren’t familiar. Circle these words and look them up. Write their meanings off to the side. Now when you’re reading, you won’t get tripped up by new words. Note: meanings of words sometimes vary based on context clues. If the definition you wrote down doesn’t make sense in the context of the poem, you might need to choose a different one.
  4. Give the poem another skim, this time for punctuation. Find all the periods first. This will show you where the sentences stop. The number one thing that trips readers up when they first encounter Shakespeare isn’t the language. It’s that the guy uses hella long sentences. Though most of his sonnets are the traditional length (14 lines), many of them are only one or two sentences long! Knowing where the sentences stop and start will help you figure out the poem’s units of meaning. Most current poetry uses the sentence or the line as its unit of meaning (in other words, that’s the size of bite you need to take to understand each part of the poem), but Shakespeare and his contemporaries often use the clause as their unit of meaning. Seeing a poem made of a few long sentences should tell you to slow down. Taking smaller nibbles of those poems will make them easier to understand.
  5. Read the poem. Sometimes reading aloud to yourself can help make it more understandable. Write down what you think the poem means as a whole. If you’re feeling ambitious, or if you’re dealing with a longer poem, write down what you think it means by stanza or by chunk.
  6. Now I’m going to tell you to do something that you might make your English teacher cringe. Google the poem. For high school–level reference, I’m a fan of Shmoop. They’re funny, and they’re actually correct most of the time. I can’t say the same for SparkNotes. Thug Notes are also pretty dope, but sometimes not school appropriate (a selling point, imo).
  7. Once you find a good interpretation of your poem, compare it with your own. Was your interpretation different or the same? If it was the same, gold star. If it wasn’t, look back at the poem. Try to pick out words and phrases that tell you yours was right. (Here’s a secret: sometimes there’s more than one correct interpretation for a poem. If you can back up your interpretation with evidence from the poem, you too deserve a gold star.) If, on the other hand, you can’t find evidence in the poem that supports your interpretation, you need to…
  8. Grab a buddy or ask your teacher. Sometimes you need to see the poem with a new set of eyes. So talking to someone about it will help. If you’re more of an introvert, there are tons of people on the internet who would love to do with with you (hi).
  9. Now that you have a better understanding of the poem, read it over again. Does it make more sense now? If it doesn’t, don’t worry. Mastering poetry is a journey you’ll take in a lot of small steps. Even professors continue learning poetry’s intricacies well into their careers. Just keep trying, keep talking about poetry, and most importantly: keep reading.
  10. Bonus step: Literary devices! Okay, so I’m a nerd for literary devices. They are the lovely spices that make poetry delicious. There are hundreds of them. Now that you understand the surface meaning of the poem, go back (preferably with a pen or even a highlighter), and find a few in your poem. Label them. Figure out how they add to the deeper meaning of the poem. In the best poems, the literary devices add a layer that points back to the poet’s overall message for the piece.

How to Read Poetry: Some Recomendations

Now that you have some strategies to make reading poetry easier, it’s time to flex your muscles.

Check out these lists:

10 Must-Read Modern Poets of Color

Button Poetry: One-Stop Shop to Get Woke

Lesbian Poetry: Because It Didn’t End with Sappho

A Beginner’s Guide to Confessional Poetry

Some Easier Books to Help You Wade In

There Are Things More Beautiful Than Beyonce by Morgan Parker

The Princess Saves Herself in This One by Amanda Lovelace

Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur

The Weary Blues by Langston Hughes

Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie by Maya Angelou

Love & Misadventure  by Lang Leav

More difficult, but personal favorites:

The Wasteland by T.S. Elliot

The Essential Rumi by Jalaluddin Mevlana Rumi

I am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan by Eliza Griswold

Trouble the Water by Derrick Austin

Go you have any suggestions?

Drop a link to a poetry book you love in the comments. I love learning about new poets and books!

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Rebecca Renner: Rebecca Renner is a writer and editor out of South Florida. Her essays have been featured in the Washington Post, New York Magazine, and Glamour. A seventh-generation Floridian, Rebecca's main area of study has been the ecology, culture, and downright weirdness of her home. When not reading, hiking, blogging, traveling, exploring, or playing with her dog Daisy Buchanan (and never sleeping!), Rebecca binge watches TV shows like The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and plots world domination via Twitter. Twitter: @RebeccaRennerFL Blog: https://beckyrenner.com/