Practical Basics of How to Read a Poem

Practical Basics of How to Read a Poem

Trying to grasp basics of reading poetry...

Getting to Grips with Slippery Fish of Poetry

I've never really understood poetry, but then I've also not really tried.

We covered it in passing in school, with a couple of poets and looking at the meaning of Ozymandias, some limericks and maybe a sonnet.

Making stupid limericks was always quite fun.

When poems or songs came up in fantasy novels, I'd generally skip them, maybe giving a cursory read.

Some authors can write nice songs/poetry, others are a confusing mess.

But then this year I've been slowly reading The Nation's Favourite Poems (from the BBC), a collection of 100 poems voted as the UK's favourites in 1995. Reading at a slow rate of 1-2 ever few nights.

And then our creative book club did a book on poetry, "How to Read a Poem" by Edward Hirsh (or another similar book). I listened to a not-so-useful history of literature and poetry in 20 lectures.

But at the meetup there was lots of discussion of poetry and some ways to understand / approach it.

So here's my practical attempt.

Practical Steps to Understanding Poetry

  1. Look at How it Fits on the Page. See how it flows and physically looks. Some effort normally goes into laying out a poem.
  2. Read it out Loud. Maybe try a couple different voices to see what works for you for a particular poem.
  3. Try Poems in their Original Language. Poetry can be hard to understand anyway, and translations often lose alot of meaning and naunce.
  4. Consider the Layers. There are usually several meanings or layers to a poem. Look at the title and any context, and see if you can spot a couple of meanings. Maybe consider who wrote it, where and when.
  5. Try Interacting with it. Use a pencil to mark bits you like, things that are confusing or strike you as important.

That's about it for now. I'll come back and update in a few months or years. No idea when/if I'll know more on the subject

Finishing Up

I don't think there's anything particularly insightful there, but it's all part of a process of understanding and growth!



Duncan is an aspiring creative nomad, who publishes random lists and tools for roleplaying games. Hobbies include salsa, games, books, podcasts, languages and history.
It varies. Probably in Europe