How To: Read a Poem

Read a Poem

How to Read a Poem

Poems can be read many ways. The following steps describe one approach. Of course not all poems require close study and all should be read first for pleasure.

Step 1 Look at the poem's title:

What might this poem be about?

Step 2 Read the Poem straight through:

Do not stop to analyze it (aloud, if possible). This will help you get a sense of how it sounds, how it works, what it might be about.

Step 3 Start with what you know:

If the poem is difficult, distinguish between what you do and do not understand. If permissible, underline the parts you do not immediately understand.

Step 4 Check for understanding:

Write a quick "first-impression" of the poem by answering the questions, "What do you notice about this poem so far?" and "what is this poem about?"

Step 5 Look at patterns:

Watch for repeated, interesting, or even unfamiliar use of language, imagery, sound, color, or arrangement. Ask,"What is the poet trying to show through this pattern?"

Step 6 Look for changes:

In tone, focus, narrator, structure, voice, patterns. Ask: "What has changed and what does the change mean?"

Step 7 Identify the narrator:

Ask: Who is speaking in the poem? What do you know about them?

Step 8 Check for new understand:

Re-read the poem (aloud, if you can) from start to finish, underlining (again) those portions you do not yet understand. Explain the poem to yourself or someone else.

Step 9 Find the crucial moments:

The pivotal moment might be as small as the word but or yet. Such  words often act like hinges withing a poem to swing the poem in a whole new direction. Also pay attention to breaks between stanzas or between lines.

Step 10 Consider form and function:

Now is a good time to look at some of the poet's more critical choices. Did the poet use a specific form, such as a sonnet? How did this particular form--e.g., a sonnet--allow them to express their ideas? Did the poet use other specific poetic devices which you should learn so you can understand the poem better? Examples might include: enjambment, assonance, alliteration, symbols, metaphors, or allusions. Other examples might include unusual use of capitalization, punctuation (or lack of any), or typography. Ask. "How is the poet using punctuation in the poem?"

Step 11 Check for improved understanding. 

Read the poem through again, aloud if possible. Return to the title and ask yourself what the poem is about and how the poem relates to the title.

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