How Do You Read A Poem?

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In 1972 my parents bought me my first poetry book, The Golden Treasury Of Poetry, edited by Louis Untermeyer. For a nine-year-old this was like being given a piece of treasure. Many an evening was spent under the bed clothes reading the many poems by torchlight and being held by the magic of Walt Whitman’s Miracles, becoming the baddie in Alfred Noyes’, The Highwayman, and floating in the madness of Edward Lear’s, The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo. The innocence of childhood allowed me to get lost and become part of the poem.

Forty-five years on, my reading and understanding of poetry has become a little more difficult. Reading glasses come provided with filters of life experience, value and belief systems, norms of culture and society, as well as the pressures and pace of modern day living. The art of reading a poem is very different.

The question of how to read a poem has challenged poets and readers for centuries. Going back nearly two hundred years, poet and literary critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge divided readers into four types.

  1. Moghul Diamonds – the best type and someone who profits by what they read and enables others to profit by it too.
  2. Sandglasses – remember nothing of what they read and just go through a book to get through time.
  3. Strainbags – remember merely the dregs of what they read.
  4. Sponges- absorb all they read and return it in nearly the same state, only a little dirtier.

I can identify as being all of these during my life.  A few years ago, I realised there was a need to get back to the Moghul Diamond stage as the quantity of poetry I was reading had superseded the quality, hence the blog and journey further into the heart of poetry.

Now the reading of a poem goes much deeper than the words and rhyming pattern. It is about the life and background of the poet, the story and emotion behind the poem and spending more time with the poem; living and breathing it to become part of what the writer intended.

In his recent book, The Poetry Pharmacy, William Sieghart gives some good advice about how to read a poem. He suggests not reading the poem like a newspaper and novel, but more like a prayer. Speak it aloud to yourself so you can hear it properly. Take it to bed with you and read it night after night, for at least five nights, remembering that no poem deserves only a single visit.

Just as I was putting together these Thursday Thoughts two of my favourite poets have combined to give me some poetry to test Sieghart’s theories. Roland Keld at Roland’s Ragbag has written an excellent poem, The Meaning of Life, which just lends itself to spending more time with and appreciating the full meaning.

Nigel Smith at Voices of a Hidden Self, has produced an audio version of him reading Roland’s, The Meaning of Life and listening to it brings more depth and meaning to the poem; hearing it read aloud as Sieghart suggests. I will be having more time out this week reading and listening to the  poem and both versions are well worth the time if you can spare it.

What are your thoughts on how a poem should be read? Do you have any tips or habits you use to get more meaning from the poems you read? Please jump in and share them in the comments section. I’d love to read them.

38 Comments

I’ll usually read it out gently and feel the writer’s thoughts.

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    That is a good way to get into the poem Mintly and thank you for sharing your thoughts. I always think reading the poem out loud brings something different to just reading it on the page.

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Although it was not needed on Roland’s ‘Meaning of Life’ Davy, I often when doing a ‘Voices’ piece alter the sentence structure and sometimes the punctuation to suit my style of reading. That’s not me being Prof. of Poetics, I’m the last person to judge grammar & punctuation ! No, it’s just to make it work in ‘Smith-World’. I think it’s to do with the wide and wonderful variation we enjoy in free verse, also, the use of rhyme being not as popular. Rhyme immediately dictates the reading. Subject makes a massive difference. As I’ve said previously, the poems I ask to do as a spoken version are obviously ones I like but it’s more than that. I have, like yourself and others Davy, admired and enjoyed the treats we are served on the ‘Ragbag’. I particularly enjoy Roland’s humorous pieces, but also the deeply moving pieces such as ‘Meaning of Life’, ‘A son to his mother’ and ‘Selkie’. Yet there was a certain something, a factor unknown, that grabbed me with ‘Meaning of Life’. When I read that poem I knew exactly what it would sound like, how I would pause it, add emphasis and all the subtle vocal nuances. And it was like that with every piece of other people’s work I’ve read.

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    You raise some good and interesting points here Nigel and I agree with your thoughts on the style of reading. When you read my poem Granda’s Shed, it brought some angles and nuances I had not thought of. So part of how to read a poem is listening to someone else read the piece as it can bring other things to the understanding and meaning of the poem. I write my poetry mainly as to how they sound being read aloud more than the rhyming pattern. Sometimes, although the rhyme works well on paper, it can sometimes sound forced on the tongue. It goes back to the phrase, poetry to be read and poetry to be said. (I don’t know who said it.) Thanks for opening up the conversation Nigel with some excellent points.

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I sometimes like to see what phrase jumps out at me, and then reflect about the poem through that lens.

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    That is a good strategy Jan and thank you for sharing it. I like this and will have to try. I suppose it provides a good frame through which to view the poem. Do you think it changes the meaning of the poem as opposed to reading it from start to finish a few times?

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      I should have added I do that after reading it through. It is actually a theological method of study. You read whatever it is a time or two, think about it, then think about what leaps out, and reflect. It can be a good way to mine deeper meaning, as well as finding personal significance – if you’re lucky, you sometimes get an “aha!” 🙂

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      Thank you again for sharing that Jan. There is someone from a theological background who is part of a poetry group I go to and it is interesting to get that perspective. It opens poems up in a different way.

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I like to use my intuitive heart to feel my way into a poem…leading me to perfect little gems for my day. This is interesting, thanks for sharing Davy!
Have a great day😀

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I enjoyed Roland’s poem and Nige’s reading of it, both a highlight of the week, and I think that’s the big thing, hearing the words as opposed to just reading them. It can elevate a piece and you’re able to pick up different nuances. I’ll usually read a poem once in my head and then aloud several times to really get a feel for the meaning. I agree with Sieghart in that no poem deserves only a single read through. Obviously, certain poems will speak to us more than others. It’s those that I like to spend a lot of time with, giving quiet, focused attention and savoring every word.

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    Thank you for your comments Colleen. I agree with your view. Sometimes there are poems that don’t draw us in for some reason. It isn’t that they are good or bad it is more to do with the filters we view them through. I can read a poem and it has little impact until I read it out loud and something different happens. I appreciate your thoughts on this and taking time out to add to the conversation.

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How wonderful that your parents gave you your first book of poetry, Davy!
I did the same for my kids. My youngest kid (a daughter) and I still exchange poetry books as gifts! 🙂

Thank you for the tips on how to read poetry!

I’ve always enjoyed reading poetry aloud or hearing someone else read poetry aloud. I have a friend who writes poems and he often asks if he can read his latest one to me and I say, “Of course! I’d love that!” So he reads his poems to me. 🙂

I like discussing poems with my friends and my daughter. I like hearing what they feel the meaning of the poem is and what emotions it stirred in them, etc.

I always wish I could ask the poet a million questions, but it isn’t possible because a lot of the poets I read have passed on or they are people I will never meet. So I like to find my own meaning and emotion and life application in the poems, even if I don’t know what the poet was thinking or feeling when they wrote them.

I reread poems because I find they often have more meaning after I’ve had more life experiences. You know, what an e e cummings poem meant to me or how it spoke to me at age 13 is different now that I am older.

HUGS!!! 🙂

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    Thank you Carolyn and you make some good points here. I read somewhere that the magic of poetry is you can interpret it is many ways but like you say, if you could sit the poet in front of you and question them you could get to the heart and true meaning of the poem. One of the things I love about Poetic Beats is the research into the poet and the poem. It gives the poem a different meaning. I also like your tip on having someone else read your poetry to you. When this has been done for me it makes you think about the poem in a different way. Some great points here Carolyn and thank you again for sharing them.

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    Great response! So, in your opinion, do you think a poet should share his thoughts and feelings about – how, why, where, when and what he thinks about the poem? I have always loved backstories. Just wondering. You hardly ever get backstories on songs???
    Chuck

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      Thank you! 🙂

      I love backstories, too! 🙂

      I often want a poet/writer/songwriter/artist to share their thoughts, feelings, life experiences, etc., behind their art…what prompted them to create what they created.

      But, I guess they shouldn’t share all of that because if they don’t then the person reading, or looking at, their art can find their own meaning and application in it…which might be very differnt from the artists.

      I know I’ve written poems and stories and had people find meaning in them that amazed me. Ha. 🙂

      We all read/view art with our own life experiences and emotions and that’s good. Art can have many different meanings and applications. 🙂

      Sorry for the long answer!
      HUGS,
      Carolyn 🙂

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    Thanks for your response on backstories. I have had people say they would rather not have photos either so they can do their own imaginings?

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A fascinating post, Davy. I was very interested to read your mention of Coleridge’s ‘Four types of readers’. I had not come across this before, but, like yourself, I’m sure I came at my present understanding having experienced all the categories myself at different times. I must add that I do appreciate your mention of my own recent poem ‘The Meaning Of Life’ and I am pleased to think that it gave rise to such considered thought on your part.

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    Thank you Roland and Coleridge’s views seem to still apply today. It shows that despite the advances in technologies very little is new. Your poem came as I was putting these thoughts together. The Poetry Gods move in mysterious ways.

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I look for what I think the writer is trying to convey. Then I look for imagery, flow, and rhythm. I take my time when reading poetry, however, anything other than poetry I don’t have much patience for.

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    Thank you for sharing your thoughts Eugenia. I often wonder if it is the draw of poetry that makes other forms of writing less appealing, the more you get into it. I struggle to read any fiction these days although certain non-fiction can grab me for a while. I am reading a book about fonts and type at the moment 🙂

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i read the comments from all your readers above Davy as I am late to this post (yet again!), but it was fortuitous as I got to read everyone elses comments and they were brilliant thoughts.

not much I can add probably but just to mention that I learnt poetry in 3 different languages and English is the most melodious of the three. each language has a cadence of its own which makes English poems so melodious to the ears even for a non speaker. Next would be my mother tongue Bahasa Malaysia, having the influence of Arabic and Sanskrit words it is a very seductive language to read poetry. I had my first book of English poetry in middle school and treasured it. I started on the classics very early but never found the pleasure until much later in life. I think that’s because i read it for education and not pleasure, later on when it wasn’t for an exam or test it took on a different meaning, it became an outlet of emotions. reading poetry made me appreciate the language even more.

I seldom read poetry out loud, only if its really long and I need to be immersed in it. otherwise I read silently and pick up on the emotion the poet is expressing. simple words deliver the best messages and the title of a poem is so important to me, it’s the introduction to what’s inside. it can entice or put me off.

when does a poem affect me? I think when i can relate and identify with the theme and sentiment, poems on nature have the most profound effect as I am an outdoors person. So is it connected with the way we are made up and not the poet’s writing that seduces us?

another interesting discussion Davy, one to think more on over the week that will be. hope you are having a lovely weekend with the family. its a long one here with the Lunar New Year and lots of celebrations.

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    Thank you for these valued thoughts Gina. It is interesting what you say, the poems that resonate with you are the ones about nature, as you are an outdoor person. It brings the thought as to whether our personality has a bearing on how we like or interpret a poem. For instance would someone who is restless appreciate a long poem like Beowulf or someone who has a dominant personality appreciate poems of a softer nature. An interesting point to bring to the conversation Gina, so thank you. Enjoy the Lunar New Year celebrations and the rest of your weekend.

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      yes good point about the restlessness in a personality, I am that, I don’t sit quiet for long but I have times I need the inactivity for reflection and so longer poems can be tedious for me, yet if it’s written with an easy flow i can be so engrossed. Another aspect I thought of was does the feminine or masculine side of us have some forbearing on how we read it? or maybe its that dominant personality you mentioned? as i said a most interesting topic, you created a lot of questions and its been lovely to explore them. you could compile all these thoughts in your comments to come to some sort of a conclusion. all this data should not go to waste (that’s the physicist me talking!) thank you for the wishes Davy. and the same to you and the family. Gong Xi Fa Cai! a prosperous new year to you!

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      Thank you for your thoughts and ideas Gina. One of the things I hope for Thursday Thoughts is that it leads us into deeper conversations and explorations of poetry. I keep a book with the main points and themes coming out of the conversations and will start leading them back to the commenters blogs. Who knows there may be a book in there :). Thank you for the suggestions and Gong Xi Fa Cai to you too Gina (they are the only words I know in Chinese),

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    I’m with Gina, another discussion! I don’t usually read poems aloud unless they are really good. I let the inner voices in my head each rotate for their turn! Sometimes I like to read my own poems outloud to make sure they flow.

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Great post Davy! Always love your thought provoking questions! I don’t usually read a poem outloud except for really great ones or some super lines. I like to fall into the cadence of a poem and the rhyme is any. I have a hard time reading a poem that is really good because I get distracted with really great words, phrases and lines. I guess that stems from my attraction for seeds of inspiration!! Don’t laugh, they can turn into beautiful blossoms!

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Thanks JB. Very much appreciated.

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