Happy Poetry Month! My students often scowl when I announce we’ll be reading a poem or covering *heaven forbid* an entire unit on poetry. Reading poetry often bothers people—it certainly bothers me in the best possible way.

The Secret to Reading Poetry: First Dates

Sometimes poetry feels lofty and pretentious and seems to say, “I know something you don’t know,” which is obnoxious, like an older sister taunting us. Some poetry makes us scratch our heads and say, “What the heck was that all about?”

But if we keep reading, poetry often moves us in ways a paragraph can’t. It requires a compression of language and meaning, tucked inside precise words that create concrete images.

(Writers of all genres: we can learn so much from the poets!)

So what is the secret to reading poetry well?

Here’s what I tell my students: Approach reading poetry the same way you approach a first date.

Some students frown at me. Others’ mouths drop open in abject horror that I might know anything about dating. The room gets deathly quiet, until someone always bursts out, “WHAT?!”

It’s true. When you go on a first date, you are open to new ideas, excited to make connections. You try not to compare him or her with the dates you have had in the past. You listen and ask thoughtful questions.

Poetry requires the same gentle approach.

What if I can’t figure it out?

You have two options: 1. Move on to another poem or poet, or 2. Reread and look for the clues to the poem. (Strikingly similar to the options you have on a first date, right?)

Clues? In a poem?

The clues are almost always hidden in the images and the form. Let me use the sonnet as an example. Without getting too technical, the sonnet is usually fourteen lines of rhymed iambic pentameter, which just means that there is an established rhythm that sounds like this: da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM.

Why might a poet use such a tightly controlled form? Often, it is either to reinforce or to resist its message.

Take the sonnet “Design” by Robert Frost. (Yes, go read it.) Frost uses the first eight lines (called an octave) to observe a scene in nature. It is a rather tense scene, as the spider has caught a moth. At the end of line eight, he makes a turn (called the volte) and the final six lines (sestet) connect the octave’s images to his theme.

Let’s add up the clues

  1. Title: “Design” (Is this a poem about how things are designed or created and why? If not, what is the significance of the title?)
  2. Octave’s images: Two characters in a setting (spider and moth on a flower). What do the images suggest? (death, the cycle of nature)
  3. The sestet’s questions: He basically asks whether the flower asked to be blue, the spider asked to eat, or the moth chose to fly—the answer? Nope. So why do they do these things? Take a look at the end: “What but design of darkness to appall?— / If design govern in a thing so small.” These last two lines are ambiguous. He seems to believe “design” might govern such elements of nature, but then he adds the word “if.”
  4. The form: He chose a sonnet—a tightly controlled form to express the poem. The poem itself is “designed.” The form reinforces the meaning of the poem.

Add up the clues and we find that Frost seems to believe there is some element of design to our lives, although we can’t always make sense of it (sound like a poem or first date?).

If nothing else, we have pulled in close next to Frost and watched a vivid moment in nature. We don’t have to agree to share that moment.

Go on, try it. Date a poem this week.

You are not going to love every first date, just as you will not love every poem you read. However, if you keep listening, you will hear what makes the person or poem tick, and you will walk away with a greater understanding of humanity and the world around us.

Here are a few of my favorite poets and sites to explore for great poetry:

Forgetfulness” by Billy Collins (There’s also terrific animated version of this on his site here.)

Traveler, your footprints” by Antonio Machado

Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou

Spoken word: performed poetry like “Touchscreen” by Marshall Jones

Sarah Kay’s site (So fun! Click on any picture to hear a poem—try the peacock feather.)

What clues do you look for when reading poetry? Let us know in the comments.

PRACTICE

What are your favorite poems? Think of one you’ve read before, or choose one of the poems I listed above.

For the next fifteen minutes, read it and reread it. Look for the clues, following the example above. Don’t worry if you don’t have the exact words to describe the form or meter—notice whether or not it uses one and take note of the concrete images. Which images are strongest and what do they seem to say?

When your time is up, tell us which poem you picked and share your analysis in the comments below. And if you share, remember to leave feedback for your fellow writers!

Sue Weems
Sue Weems
Sue Weems is a writer, teacher, and traveller with an advanced degree in (mostly fictional) revenge. When she’s not rationalizing her love for parentheses (and dramatic asides), she follows a sailor around the globe with their four children, two dogs, and an impossibly tall stack of books to read. You can read more of her writing tips on her website.