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Methods for Reading Poetry

by Douglas Matus

Reading poetry can be a talent in its own right, and every good reader has their own way of doing it. The true power of poetry is revealed through the personal associations it inspires. Each person brings to the reading of a poem a wealth of personal experience. When reading a poem, it passes through the filter of that personal experience to become something entirely new. It is in this way that reading poetry becomes a creative act.

Read the Poem Straight Through

On the first read, allow the poem to wash over you.

To begin, read the poem once straight through with no expectations and an open mind. Let yourself experience whatever you find without worrying about important ideas or hidden meanings that the poem may contain. Let it wash over you, and try to isolate any emotional response that the poem causes by stopping for a second and focusing upon it. Do not allow yourself to get tripped up by a difficult word or passage. Most difficulties or misunderstandings will iron out on the second read.

Get to the Bottom of Word Meaning

Words have layers of meaning that have accumulated over time.

On the second read, seek the exact sense of every word. Why does the poet say “blue tarpaulin sheet” rather than “sky”? There is no mystery to poetry. While meaning may be obscure, it is always there, even if you have to supply it totally on your own. Use a dictionary for this part. Words can often have double meanings beyond your initial understanding. The best dictionary for this is an etymological dictionary, which shows how the meanings of words have changed over time. These are especially useful for the reading of older poetry. The Oxford English dictionary is a good etymological dictionary.

Read the Poem Aloud

Reading poetry aloud reveals the music behind the words.

Speaking poetry aloud will reveal shades of meaning that you otherwise might miss. For example, in Alexander Pope’s "The Dunciad," there are a couple of lines where the author lampoons another writer named James Ralph, who had sung the praises of his mistress, Cynthia, in poorly written verse. Pope makes the goddess of Dullness exclaim: “Silence, ye wolves! While Ralph to Cynthia howls, / and makes night hideous -- answer him, ye owls!” When “ye owls” slides together and becomes “yowls,” poor Ralph’s serenade turns into the nighttime screech of a cat.

Create Your Meaning

Every time a great poem is read, a new meaning is born.

Finally, try to paraphrase the poem as a whole. In a few words, jot down what the poem is saying line by line. Not only will this aid in understanding, it will reveal the distance between poetry and prose, lend insights into why a poet phrased things the way he or she did, and also the motives for placing words in certain spots. Your written interpretation will stand as a creation in its own right. What makes a poem great is that each and every reading of it by each and every reader brings to life new and different meanings.

About the Author

Douglas Matus is the travel writer for "West Fort Worth Lifestyle" magazine, and spent four years as the Director of Humanities for a college-prep school in Austin. Since 2005, he has published articles on education, travel and culture in such publications as "Nexus," "People's World" and "USA Today." Matus received an Education Pioneers fellowship in 2010 and an MFA from CalArts in 2011.

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