The Layman Guide to the Art of Reading Poetry

One of the reasons why many people shun away from reading poetry is due to the difficulty of reading it either silently or aloud, not to mention the difficulty in understanding it. Unlike other literary forms such as essays, myths, or biographies where a reader can wander out of sequence, reading a poem requires undivided attention starting from the very first line of the verse. The irony of it all is that poems composed with the most minimum of lines can be just as densely packed with meanings and emotions as a lengthy novel with several volumes.

Sure, there are guides in reading poetry. However, the many styles and form of poetry writing demands for the flexibility to read within the structure of how the words are contained or broken into lines, through the sound created by the combination of the words or through the use of symbols to refer to a hidden meaning. Nevertheless, once the ability to read all through these complexities has been polished, an ideal reading style is developed to demystify poetry and gain a better understanding of the message hidden beyond the structured words.

How to Read a Poem

Poetry is a performing art. At times, it may require music to accompany the chanting of words. The best way to reading poetry is to read aloud in a tone apt to the style and message of the poem. It requires a few or several times of reading repeatedly to get the right tone. Moreover, just like any undertaking, it calls for discovering how the poem works before it can be understood, appreciated and relished. To achieve this purpose, there is the need to investigate the following elements used by the poet in writing his piece.

  • Tonal Implication
    Who is speaking in the poem? In principle, all poets can assume a character to speak in another voice. Who is he speaking to? The poet may be talking to someone in a private or personal manner or may be addressing the public. Are there parts that have sarcastic, serious, scared, buoyant intonations? What is the contextual situation or are there particular expressions that explicitly reveal the writer’s emotion?
  • Allusions, Metaphors and Images
    Many poets eloquently use words that can portray images while being read. What are the pictures created in the mind as the poem is read? Poets may mean another thing entirely different from the words used. Does the allusion connect you to something outside its real meaning? What do the words allow you to see?
  • Rhetoric
    Poetry remains to be the literary form where rhetorical expressions can be used abundantly. What does the poet intend to accomplish by playing with words and structures elaborately? How are they used? Do they drive to a point?
  • Structure
    Poems can be broken down into pieces. Each line signifies a meaning where they break. Each stanza contains an insight, revelation, instruction, or the whole world. Reading a short poem does not mean it requires lesser attention than reading a longer one. Regardless of length and structure, all poems offer a well-hidden meaning.
  • Ambiguities
    Is there a part somewhere that puzzles you? Does the poem challenge you to find the answer and make you excited to read on? Is there a key word, phrase, or line that stands for something else? Does the author make comparisons or describe a thing as if it were another? Does the title represent the content?
  • Tradition, Norm or Principle
    Take note of the period or date the poem was composed. What was the prevailing situation during the time of publication? Are there controversial issues about tradition or cultural practices? Does the poem sound political? What was the advocacy contained in the verse? Does it move you to action?

After going through the poem, word for word and line by line, read it again with the open eyes and ears of an enlightened mind. It comes as a surprise to rediscover a completely new perspective that can help you in interpreting the true message of the verse. Reading poetry is not that difficult at all. It just takes time and it gets better with practice.