How to Read a Poem

Professor Kristin SamuelianGeorge Mason Literature Professor Kristin Samuelian has some hints about how to get the most out of your reading of a poem.

Before you try to write about a poem, read it out loud.

It’s difficult for us to think of reading poetry as a skill that we must develop.  For at least the last 200 years (but, interestingly enough, not much longer than that) we have thought of poetry as a literary genre that is primarily emotive and deeply personal.  In other words, a poem is either the expression of the poet’s most dearly held thoughts and therefore not available to interpretation by an “outsider,” or it is the expression of anyone’s most dearly held thoughts, and therefore available to just about any interpretation we wish to put on it.  In neither of these formulations is the understanding and interpretation of poetry work.

And yet anything that is truly rewarding, as we all know, involves work.  And often, the harder the work, the greater the reward. The “work” of understanding poetry involves, at its most basic level, understanding the relationship between, on the one hand, our emotional or affective response to a poem, and, on the other hand, the work that the poet has done to produce that response.  This means looking at how a poem is put together—its structure, its rhythmic and rhyming patterns, the language used, even the organization of sentences—and trying to figure out how the particular combination of structure, language, syntax, rhythm, and rhyme in a given poem works to produce that poem’s unique effect.

What this should mean for you as readers of poetry is that you should count on spending more time with a new poem than its length might seem to suggest to you.  Poems are often short on words but long in terms of time investment required.  For starters, plan on reading each poem three times.  Your first, fairly quick reading should give you a general sense of what the poem is about, what about it you don’t understand, and what your initial reaction to it is. 

The second time around, read more slowly; pay careful attention to footnotes, if there are any; if there aren’t, look up any unfamiliar words in a dictionary, and write the relevant definitions in the margins or in your notes; try to determine as much as you can about the poem’s structure, and pay closer attention to what puzzled or interested you in the first, brief reading. 

Finally, a third reading should be a synthesis of the first two: now that you know a little more about how the poem works, what can you say in a bit more detail, and with more confidence, about how it makes you feel?

Wait, though; you’re still not done.  After you’ve read the poem three times, made notes, and begun to feel a bit more confident about it, you need to read it one more time: aloud.  This is the part that makes many of us cringe, but it’s absolutely essential to an understanding of how the poem works.  Many words are chosen as much for how they sound as for what they mean or how they look.  Rhyme, rhythm (often called meter), even sentence structure, have a much stronger—sometimes even a different—impact on the poem’s meaning when spoken or heard.

So work through your self-consciousness; find a private place where you can’t be heard; get a partner from this or another class, and read poems to each other.  Do whatever you have to do, but read poetry aloud.  Otherwise, you’re not actually reading it.