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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
Want to Learn More About Poetry?
Whether you’re just starting to put pen to paper or dream of being published, writing poetry demands time, effort, and meticulous attention to detail. No one knows this better than former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins. In Billy Collins’s MasterClass on the art of poetry writing, the beloved contemporary poet shares his approach to exploring different subjects, incorporating humor, and finding a voice.
Want to become a better writer? The MasterClass Annual Membership provides exclusive video lessons on plot, character development, creating suspense, and more, all taught by literary masters, including Billy Collins, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Dan Brown, Judy Blume, David Baldacci, and more.