Suggestions for Approaching Poetry

  1. Assume that it will be necessary to read a poem more than once. Give yourself a chance to become familiar with what the poem has to offer. Like a peace of music, a poem becomes more pleasurable with each encounter.
  2. Do pay attention to the title; it will often provide a helpful context for the poem and serve as an introduction to it.
  3. As you read the poem for the first time, avoid becoming entangled in words or lines that you don’t understand. Instead give yourself a chance to take in the entire poem before attempting to resolve problems encountered along the way.
  4. On a second reading, identify any words or passages that you don’t understand. Look up words or passages that you don’t know; these might include names, places, historical and mythical references, or anything else that is unfamiliar to you.
  5. Read the poem aloud (or perhaps have a friend read it to you). You’ll probably discover that some puzzling passages suddenly fall into place when you hear them. You’ll find that nothing helps, though, if the poem is read in an artificial, exaggerated manner. Read in as natural a voice as possible, with slight pauses at line breaks. Silent reading is preferable to imposing a “te-tumpty-te-tum” reading of the poem.
  6. Read the punctuation. Poems use punctuation marks – in addition to the space on the page – as signals for readers. Be especially careful not to assume that the end of a line marks the end of a sentence, unless it is concluded by punctuation.
  7. Paraphrase the poem to determine whether you understand what happens in it. As you work through each line of the poem, a paraphrase will help you to see which words or passages need further attention.
  8. Try to get a sense of who is speaking and what the setting or situation is. Don’t assume that the speaker is the author; often it is a created character.
  9. Assume that each element in the poem has a purpose. Try to explain how the elements of the poem work together.
  10. Be generous. Be willing to entertain perspectives, values, experiences, and subjects that you might not agree with or approve.
  11. Try developing a coherent approach to the poem that helps you to shape a discussion of the text.
  12. Don’t expect to produce a definitive reading. Many poems do not resolve all the ideas, issues, or tensions in them, and so it is not always possible to drive their meaning into an absolute corner. Your reading will explore rather than define the poem. Poems are not trophies to be studied and mounted. They’re usually ore elusive. And don’t be afraid that a close reading will damage the poem. Poems aren’t hurt when we analyze them; instead, they come alive as we experience them and put into words what we discover through them.
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