On Reading Poetry

Suggestions for greater enjoyment

A. Your first feelings: intuitive response

  1. Choose a time and a space that are conducive to relaxation and receptivity.
  2. Read the poem aloud slowly and fluently, without pausing to examine difficult words or concepts. The aim of this reading is to get a general “feel” for the poem. Note your response.

B. Going deeper: the powers of words

  1. Look up any words that you don’t know, or which you suspect may be used in a different sense from the one you know. You can type “Define: word” in the Google search field for an instant answer.
  2. Also look at the pronunciation guide in the dictionary to find out where the stress should be laid when the words are spoken (note that this is a guideline only as regional accents differ, but these differences can be interesting to investigate for their impact on your understanding or enjoyment of the poem.)

C. Going deeper: the pleasures of structure

  1. Write the poem out on Irish-lined paper, leaving lines free between those of the poem for your comments. You can type it out instead, of course, but writing longhand is good for slowing you down and giving you a tactile sense of the shape and value of each word and line.
  2. Number the lines and the stanzas in the left margin and establish the rhyme scheme (e.g. abbacc) in the right margin.

D. Going deeper: the surprises of scansion

  1. Now read the poem again, aloud, and scan the metre and/or examine the rhythm for significant patterns or variations in stress. One educator suggests that “meaning in poetry emerges from the gap in expectation between metre and rhythm.” Note: it is very difficult to do this silently. Speak each line aloud, and if necessary tap in time with metre.
  2. Pay special attention to places where the sense of the statement or the diction (word choice) will not allow you to conform to the metrical stress. Examine the effect of this discrepancy.

E. Going deeper: the impacts of images

  1. Identify images: metaphors, similes, personifications, allegorical statements, etc.
  2. Allow your mind to free-associate with these, noting what emotions, music, colours, images, words, sensations, etc. come to mind for you as you focus on them.
  3. Now try to understand the images in context… do your associations change?

F. Going deeper: the delights of devices

  1. Notice technical devices like rhyme, alliteration, assonance, repetition, oxymorons, punctuation, stanza breaks, enjambement and any others.
  2. Decide whether they enhance the logical sense or the emotional effect (the psychological “affect”) of the poem.

G. Going deeper: the riches of references

  1. Look for references to other literature or the arts, including classics like scriptures, fables, myths and legends, and contemporary allusions, symbols and memes. If you find characters or themes from these sources, refresh your memory about their significance. For example, look up “Psyche” or “Cupid” or “Demeter”, or do a word search via a concordance.
  2. Look up some background on the poet—usual themes and preoccupations, culture and language/s, literary period, age at writing, or the specific context of the writing of this poem.

    Note: There is some argument as to whether background material ought to influence your reading. Personally, I like to feel that the poem introduces me to the poet, but you may prefer to leave this step to last, or to do it only if the previous steps have not enabled you to understand the poem.

H. Your enriched feelings: refined response

  1. Read the poem aloud again, slowly and with as much feeling as you can muster from your added insights.
  2. Examine your emotional response now in relation to your initial response (point A.2).

I. Your enriched thinking: meet the mind of the poet

  1. Decide on the meaning of the poem. It may help to summarise the argument, or to describe pictures and emotions generated.
  2. Note any differences between a universal meaning that most readers would probably comprehend and a personal meaning arising from your own experiences to inform, colour, intensify or mute your response. Both are valid.

J. Assess the value: for you and for others

  1. Decide whether you like the poem or not.
  2. Decide whether the poem is good or bad.

    Note: These two judgements may differ, but you must define your parameters of judgement before you can make an evaluative statement. For example, a poem that is logically or technically deficient may conceivably be effective in conveying atmosphere or emotion, if the words and images used have strong connotations.

K. Pay it forward: celebrate by sharing

  1. If you liked the poem, read it to a friend, putting into your reading all your new understanding.
  2. Pay attention to their response. If your deeper understanding enables your hearer to grasp the poem better than you did on first reading, enjoy it again with them. If they respond differently, be curious… what treasures lie that way?

Thanks for this list. I spend so much time trying to convince people of these things, it’s nice to see others are also doing this work.

Very thorough. Reminds me of my Romanian teacher. (Romanian is my native language.) She used to ask of us to “analyze” every poem we studied using a similar algorithm :)

Tia says:

Thanks. I hope you enjoyed the poems you studied! I don’t think of close reading as “algorithmic”. To me, it’s just about slowing down to consider all the meanings that the poet possibly intended to convey and savouring the sounds and values of the words in my mouth like melted chocolate (which can’t be dealt with quickly!)

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