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How to Read Poetry: 5 Steps for Enriching Your Experience of a Poem

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 2 min read

If you’re new to the pastime of reading poetry—or if you used to read poetry books in high school or college but have fallen out of the habit—it’s understandable to question whether you’re digesting the art form in the proper way. Fortunately, there is never a right or wrong way to appreciate a work of art. A reader can enjoy poetry in a vast number of ways, from dissecting an allegory in a Robert Frost verse, to deriving the meaning of an Edward Hirsch poem, to a line by line analysis of a Shakespeare sonnet, to simply letting individual words of a Walt Whitman elegy flow with emotion.

The experience of reading poetry can be an academic exercise in cataloging poetic devices like alliteration and metonymy. It can be musical—such as when you attend a poetry slam for the first time and hear the snappy consonants of a poem out loud. It can also be a private and personal undertaking, such as curling up with an Emily Dickinson poetry collection and either reading aloud or silently as you contemplate each poem’s meaning.



Billy Collins Teaches Reading and Writing PoetryBilly Collins Teaches Reading and Writing Poetry

In his first-ever online class, former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins teaches you how to find joy, humor, and humanity in reading and writing poetry.

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5 Steps for Reading a Poem

Great poetry can be found in all historical eras and all languages. As an exercise, select a poem to read—for instance, Walt Whitman’s classic work “To a Locomotive in Winter.” As you read, keep the following considerations in mind:

  1. Read the poem twice in a row. Take note of what you notice the second time that wasn’t so apparent in your first reading.
  2. Don’t skip over unfamiliar words. Pay attention to them and look them up. You can’t be assured you fully understand a poem if you don’t understand all its words.
  3. Try to identify a meter, if there is one. Is this blank verse, rhyming couplets, a haiku? Or perhaps it’s free verse, with no fixed rhyme scheme or meter.
  4. Notice point of view. When pondering what the poem means, consider the mindset of the speaker. Would a different poetic speaker alter one’s understanding of the poem?
  5. Read the poem one more time, and this time read it aloud. Consider the sound of each word as it hits your ear, and take in the aesthetic pleasures of the sounds themselves.

At the end of the day, there is no single method for understanding poetry, just as there’s no single method for writing poetry. The experience of reading a good poem and appreciating how the poet uses language is its own reward. The overriding rule is to not rush, don’t skip over words or sections, and whenever possible, read the poem aloud. By doing so, you can unlock the multifaceted beauty contained in so many works of poetry.

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Billy Collins Teaches Reading and Writing Poetry
Billy Collins Teaches Reading and Writing Poetry
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