Understanding poetry truly isn’t as hard as people make it out to be. With a little coaching, some jargon, and some practice, it’s a pretty easy thing.
And to appreciate it doesn’t mean that you have to learn every little thing about poetry. Trust me, there’s too much. And even poetry nerds like me don’t have it all down.
Listed below are the basics you need to get the most out of the verse you read.
Read with the punctuation marks. Just because a line breaks doesn’t mean there’s a pause. Pause where the commas and end marks are. If there’s no punctuation, it may take a few times through the poem to figure out where to pause. Look at this piece of Shakespeare’s “My Mistress Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun.” Notice that it makes WAY more sense if you DON’T pause at the end of the line!
Get used to re-reading. To really get a poem, you have to read it a few times. Even if it appears simple on the first pass, there will be lots more to it on the second and third time through.
Pay attention to line breaks, capitalization, and structure. Lines are broken where they are on purpose to add emphasis or to move your eyes down the page. Words that the poet capitalizes are words that are Important, especially if it’s something that’s not usually given a capital letter.
How it sounds helps create a feeling. Lots of soft letters in soft sounding words-
-m, n, s, r, l–will help create a soft feeling. Hard letters–d, t, k, p–create harsher sounds. Those sounds can mimic water or wind, or weapons and warfare depending on their usage. Those sounds create feelings, which in turn help you as the reader, develop meaning.
Make a connection. You should be able to find some sort of connection with every poem you read. Does it remind you of your Great Aunt Tilly? Your favorite superhero? Make you question something you heard at church? Make you feel sad or angry or nostalgic? Those connections are the whole purpose of literature; poets write to express thoughts and feelings, and we read to better understand our own.
Got anything to add? Let me know about it in the comments? Like what you read? Share this somewhere! Happy National Poetry Month!
Started in 1996 by the Academy of American Poets, National Poetry month is a special kind of nerd thing.
Many people are nerds for science fiction, gaming, cosplay, computers, coding, music, musicals, TV shows, fan fiction, etc. Those of us who nerd for poetry get pretty excited that we have a whole month dedicated to the thing we love that so many other less fortunate people don’t.
If you don’t love poetry, you might want to come back in May.
If you love poetry, or love someone who loves poetry, this spot will be the place to be, as in the next 29 days, we’re going to look at the world of poetry. Where it came from, how we study it, why we study it, and why more people should stop and love it. So, in true modern blog fashion, here are some reasons you should celebrate national poetry month.
You remember something about poetry because a poetry geek pounded it into your head.That geek was probably one–or four–of your high school English teachers. Each of mine were amazing women who pushed me to write not just for grades, but for passion. That they cared enough to make me remember that sonnets have fourteen lines and haiku three, means something. And that you remember it means something too.
You might admit to having a favorite poem if forced to. We all have a favorite book, and if we’re the smart educated sort, we might even have a favorite poem. I do. I have several actually, but the one that will always top the list is Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabelle Lee.” I memorized it in middle school, and have tucked my kids into bed with it, despite its depressing story.
You have actually liked a song for the lyrics and not the music. There are some performers whose lyrics are just gut wrenching. I bet you can name a few songs whose lyrics were the perfect backdrop for an event in your life. Like it or not, those lyrics are poetry. Everything from sappy country to hard rock and rap are, at their heart, poems.
You want to impress your significant other. Every romantic wants someone to think they’re beautiful enough to have a sonnet written for them. I had a student once who, as part of his poetry memorization project, recited one of Shakespeare’s sonnets to a girl in his class, gave her a rose, and sat down. I’m pretty sure they’ll both remember the absolute amazingness of that two minutes for the rest of their lives. I don’t remember the student’s name, but I can see him, on one knee in front of her, one hand on his heart and one holding out that rose.
Educators could use the support. There are poems about everything. Find some, and encourage your children, your friends, your family, to read them. Teachers can use all the help we can get to encourage our students to dig a little deeper, and not be embarrassed to embrace something like poetry.
Poetry is a living, beautiful thing that grows and changes and demands that you pay attention to it. I stole this from a teacher at a training years ago: Good literature is like a good girl. She doesn’t kiss on the first date. You want something more than company? You’re going to have to work for it, earn it. With poetry, that work means you may have to read a piece several times to really “get it.” My favorite poem for this lesson is William Cullen Bryant’s “Thanatopsis,” which my 10th grade literature teacher made us memorize the last stanza of. In her honor, I make my juniors memorize it too.
The Academy of American Poets has it all planned out for you. They have a “poem a day” email that will bring you cool poetry you’ve likely never read before straight into your in-box on the daily, so you don’t even have to go looking for it. They have lesson plans for you teachers, and poems for every event and occasion you can imagine. Some of the best poets are represented on their website. You should check them out.
Don’t be embarrassed. Poetry is a really cool thing. Trust me. Celebrate it. You won’t regret it!