How to Read a Poem: A National Poetry Month Practice


April is National Poetry Month here in the United States. In the past, I’ve written a poem every day of the month to celebrate. This year, I’m loving on poetry in other ways, like buying a couple books at my favorite local bookstore, sharing more poems in my workshops, and spending time in close reading of poems.

Poetry isn't the first choice for some to read or write. But I don’t follow any fuss about whether poetry is dead or not—to me, it’s very much alive and holding a unique space. Many of the ancient teachers and books that people still read today hold a lot of poetry. Many myths that still ring true have found their voice in poetry for hundreds of years.

Whether or not we're working on poetry, poetry is working on us. Poetry is in our bones. So how do we get closer to it?

My hunch is that the act of reading poetry is where many folks get stopped. Maybe in school, someone says there's only one way to read a poem… and that way feels like a secret code, with technical terms or critique that turn the poem into a riddle. Or the only poets you meet in school are poets who are long dead, homogenous, or writing about topics that feel distant. These poets can be good to have in the reading pile—but if they’re the only ones greeting you at the gate of poetry, you may struggle to see yourself in poetry-land.

"The reader of poetry is a kind of pilgrim setting out. To read a poem is to depart from the familiar, to leave all expectations behind."

Edward Hirsch
How to Read a Poem

I like to think we read poetry for the same reason we meet new people: to find a point of connection. To bring our curiosity to someone or something beyond ourselves. To feel the challenge or invitation of that new connection. To discover how someone else lives, thinks, or even talks (and in the process, learn more about how we live, think, or talk).

So when asking how to read a poem, my answer for this post doesn't lie with technical ways to read (such as scansion). Instead, I’m interested in intuitive, follow-your-curiosity ways to read poetry. Ways of reading that help us bring a poem closer and find a bit of ourselves in it. 

Three Practices for Reading Poetry

Take the poem slow. Ask what's being revealed, instead of hunting for what it all means.

Sometimes I wish we didn’t even call it “reading poetry.” Can we invent a word for how a poem is absorbed? Wading? Tuning in? Reading a poem does not have to be like doing a cannonball—diving in and trying to adjust your body to deep waters immediately. Of course, you can always try it this way to see how the poem feels. But if you’re looking for a way to bring the poem close, slow down.

Diane Wakoski, one of my poetry teachers, often spoke about the revelation happening within a poem. I love that word for how a poem does it work. And I love the idea of revelation as the spirit we can bring to the poem, as readers. If we read only with the hope of digesting it all, we may miss how the poem unfolds, unwinds, uncurls for us. 

Instead of reading one poem after the next in a book or magazine, choose one poem to give your undivided attention. Then give each line your undivided attention. Then maybe each word. Then try reading the poem out loud. If a recording of the poem is available, I like to read the poem myself a couple times before hearing someone else read it. It lets me build my own connection with the poem and then experience someone else’s. What shifts with each read or listen? What pops out to you? What line grabs you from the start and won’t let go?

Let the poem work on you. Let it send you away. Let it startle.

As I've shared poems with folks, I've noticed a tendency to think that we don’t “get” a poem if we don’t follow all of it. An image shows up in the third line, and folks are so caught by it, they don’t remember the rest of the poem. They are carried away, turning the language over in their mind. When people share this experience, it often sounds like a confession: “Forgive me, but I didn’t listen to the poem.”

I would say they did listen, especially if this is their first time meeting the poem. There’s nothing wrong with getting startled or amused by just one line. In fact, I embrace this wholeheartedly. That one image, sound, or word may be the door that opens up the poem to you on the second or third read. (Or it may be all you needed from the poem, and how wonderful that you got to find it.)

Poetry and music have a lot in common in this way. When we listen to a new song, we don’t feel bad for singing one part over and over. The chorus might be the only part that reaches out to you, but it might be incredibly powerful. So if the poem evokes something for you, honor that. Even if it’s just one word that knocks you sideways, the poem is working on you. Rather than judging whether you “get the poem,” just receive the gifts it wants to share for now.

Return to the poem, with a pencil in hand.

It can take years and dozens of reads to pull a poem around you and feel all the edges of its language, sound, and imagery. There are poems I read in college that still haunt me... sometimes a life experience finally lines up with the truth of the poem, and I get that shiver of something being revealed.

This is why poetry is so essential, so much in our bones. Poetry is always there to show us more. It's patient with us. (Maybe a perk of being a not-so-mainstream art form? It doesn't bother much with our ideas of time.) So I try to bring the same patience to my reading. When I re-read, I have a pencil in hand. I mark my books to the point that there is a journal living within the book. (I also write the date of my reading for this reason, so I can follow what showed up over the course of my journey with a book or poem.) As I read, I listen for and mark:

  • Words and images that call out and feel irresistible, strong, or personally meaningful. If there is a special reason, I note that. Thanks to these notes, I've discovered certain poems come back to me when I'm in a certain season of life. It's comforting (and surprising) to build this relationship with a poem.
  • Sounds or phrases that repeat or echo each other. Does a poem hold a lot of "ooo," or is it making edges with the sound, like "rrrr"? Is it screeching or creaking with "eeee" sounds? How do these sounds tug on your ear or your heart? If they repeat in a certain pattern, what is the effect? Sometimes this can create the feeling of waves in a poem. Sometimes it can make the poem feel mechanical, like a car starting up. All of this pulls a reader closer, and sometimes it can reflect the poem's subject. For instance, a poem about the ocean may create the sound of the ocean.
  • Line breaks that punch the poem in different directions or play with its pace. Full disclosure: line breaks are a constant source of curiosity and frustration for my writing. It's the thing I tweak the most while revising. So I read other poems knowing this is where I need help. I note how the line length and the breaks create a rhythm (or break a rhythm) in the poem. I try to imagine what choices the poet made, what words they wanted to emphasize, or what they most wanted me to see or hear through the breaks. Are they trying to slow me down? Are they trying to get me to "swallow" a certain word or image as I read? Are they forcing me to take a breath before I'm ready?
  • Themes, symbols, and patterns that build on each other. This is especially good to note if you're reading a collection of poems. Are there certain images that come up a lot? Is there an underlying question that the poems are circling? Is there a longing or a promise that's being probed across the poems? As you note these, you may start to make sense of how the poems are talking to each other. You might also find narrators or characters in the poems that are standing in for a bigger idea. Or you might realize that the symbols add up to a myth or parable you've seen elsewhere, and that could add a new layer of meaning to the poems.

Every poem is its own world, with many ways to enter. But each of us is also a tiny universe, and that comes with us whenever we read. So it's not just about cracking open the poem. It's also about bringing our voice and perspective to the poem, to see what happens at the meeting of the two.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson said: "There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world."

I'd love to hear how you're spending time with poetry this month. If you try one of the practices above, it would be great to hear how it goes for you. And if you're near Grand Rapids, be sure to stop by Books & Mortar in East Hills. I'm overjoyed that we have this little indie bookstore in West Michigan and that they love poetry. (All of their poetry books are 10% off this month!)