Monday, January 26, 2015

How to Read a Poem (Poetry-Writing Series Part 1 of 6)

This article will mark the beginning of a multi-part poetry-writing series.  Each Monday will include a new article in this 6-article series.    The purpose of this series is to give you a better idea, and a deeper understanding, of the elemental approach to writing poetry.  The guidelines discussed in each article are things  I have learned throughout my own educational endeavors of English Literature and during my own applicable experience with writing poetry.

The first (and in my opinion the most important) thing you must do before attempting to write poetry is to read poetry.  Elementary as it may sound, the ability to read a poem (and the experience of having read many poems) is pertinent to your ability to write a good poem.  I don't care how many novels you have read, or how well you can construct a sentence.  It does not matter if you've written eloquent short stories, or even published a novel.  Poetry is a ballgame all of its own.  If you cannot (and have not often) read a poem, you simply will not be able to write a good, legible poem.  I firmly believe that it is from reading a specific form that we learn to write it.

Below I have compiled a list of 'musts' to poetry-reading.  Considering you are a beginner (or even a seasoned poet who does read poetry often), I believe this list can benefit aspiring poets and professionals alike.

Nine Pointers for Reading Poetry

1.  Read the poem slowly.  Oftentimes to really digest the meaning of a poem, you'll have to read it several times.

2.  Give special attention to punctuation!  Two very important structural elements of poetry are the coma and the period (the colon and semi-colon also fall into this category).  The rule is to read until you reach the coma, period, colon, or semi-colon- then pause!

3.   Poetry is meant to flow, but pay attention to line breaks.  The train of thought and subject matter of a poem are grouped into certain lines.  Do not stop at line breaks unless you see the above punctuation, but you should pay attention to what's being displayed before and after a line break.

4.   Dive into the meaning.  Look for symbols, figures of speech, analogies.  Dissect them, digest them.  These are the 'meat and bones' of the poem, they will allow you real insight into what the poem is really saying, what it's really about.

5.  Read the poem out loud.  Listen for the sounds:  alliteration, connotation, rhyme and metric.  (Don't worry if you don't know one or more of these terms, I'll be covering them throughout this series, then you can retouch on this list and apply the meanings where needed).  Sound is important, poets often use it for emphasis as well as for it's entertaining value.

6.  Take a personal approach.  I think the most universal thing about poetry is how personal it is intended to be.  So much of a poem, and what we take away from it, has to do with our own personal thoughts, opinions, memories, and experiences and how well we are able to apply those personal things of our lives to the piece of poetry we are reading.

7.  Paraphrasing and dissection.  This is especially important if you are having trouble understanding the poem.  Try rewording it in your own language, answer specific questions like:  Who is the speaker?  Who is the speaker speaking to?  What is the tone of the poem?  What is the theme?  Is there a lesson or story?

8.  Vocabulary is important.  If there is a word you are not familiar with, look it up!  It's impossible to digest the meaning of a poem if you don't even know what certain words mean.

9.  Take notes.  My old college textbooks are full of summaries, ideas, questions I've written in the margins.  Don't be afraid to take a highlighter to your book, or to write notes beside or below the poems as you read them.  This will allow you to digest, understand, and summarize the meaning of the poetry in ways you hadn't considered.

Read a few poems (maybe one's you never could quite understand) and apply these pointers and see if you come up with anything new.  Practice makes perfect, or so it's been said!


Next Monday I'll be covering Figurative language, full with terms and examples.  Join me then as we learn a little more about our favorite subject:  poetry.