How to Read a Poem

This student handout will help students to read, understand, evaluate, and write poetry.

How to Read a Poem

Step I
The first time you start to read a poem you must relax and read it once through without concentrating on its meaning. This first reading should be very much the way you would size up someone whom you are meeting for the first time. You will just get a first impression. You will observe this individual and listen to his or her voice, and you might enjoy just looking at or noticing his or her shape or movement. You may form some ideas about this person, but you should not think you really know or understand what he or she is all about. This metaphor or analogy is similar to reading a poem for the first time. You may enjoy the sound, rhythms, or description of the words, and you might form some general impressions about the poem, but you will want to learn more about it after each reading.

Step 2
On your second or third reading, you should concentrate a bit more closely on the general meaning or meanings in the poem. It is still too early to think about each specific line or word; stop, however, to think about a particular line that strikes you. It may be a certain phrase, or a word that is unfamiliar to you. You might ask a classmate in your group about this phrase, or look up the word in a dictionary. You will by now want to compare your feelings about the poem after reading it the second or third time with how you felt about it when you encountered it for the first time. Are your feelings the same? Are they similar? What is different and why?

Step 3
Any additional readings of the poem should be used to think more specifically about the words, phrases, or images you have read. It is now time to think more specifically about what the poem means. Once again, use the example given before about meeting someone. After you have seen this person on different occasions, do you still have the same first impressions? Or is this individual somewhat different now that you have gotten to know more personal details about his or her experiences, values, or beliefs?

Step 4
Poems usually are written to describe something that the poet sees differently, or is eager to convey uniquely. The poet may want to paint a picture or image with words for the reader, or to express a point of view so that the reader will think about it from a different perspective or meaning. These are some of the possibilities to keep in mind as you search for a clearer understanding of the poem.

Step 5
The more you become familiar with the poem, the better you should understand it. One helpful approach to understanding it is to try to summarize, or to put into your own words, the different interpretations you have about individual lines or stanzas in the poem. Compare your views with those of others in your group, and listen to how other students form opinions about the poem. Remember, however, that there is generally no exact or right meaning for a poem. Poets will often confess that they are not exactly sure what they meant when they wrote certain lines or phrases; they have even been heard to say on occasion that sometimes words seem to "drop from heaven" and land on the page. That is what awakening the imagination is all about. If you are lucky, and if you practice enough, magical things may happen when you write and you may be able to produce a beautiful poem or other work of art yourself.

Higher Order Thinking Responses

  1. Choose a favorite poem to read to your group.
  2. What metaphors or similes does it contain?
  3. Describe unique sounds or rhythms in the poem.
  4. Does it have unfamiliar or unusual words?
  5. What meaning or image is the poet trying to convey?

Creative Product

  1. Write your own poem using metaphors and similes with unique sounds and rhythms.

Excerpted from: English Teacher's Portfolio of Multicultural Activities

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