Different Approaches to Reading Poetry

Instructor: Jason Lineberger

Jason has 20 years of education experience including 14 years of teaching college literature.

There are many approaches to reading poetry, depending on the purpose. In this lesson, you'll learn three ways to travel through a poem, from a technique that takes a few seconds to one that will allow a reader to dig into the depths of meaning.

Purpose: Exploration

While poetry may be intimidating for many students, it doesn't have to be. Part of the reason it looks intimidating is because it appears to ignore the familiar rules of writing. Therefore, it helps to have a strategy in mind when approaching a poem, and the strategy you choose depends on your purpose for reading.

If you want to try out a poem to decide if you like it or not, the best technique to use is to read it aloud. Even with one reading you'll begin to develop ideas that can lead to interpretation. Let's try it with this poem by Emily Dickinson.

Wild Nights - Wild Nights!

Were I with thee

Wild Nights should be

Our luxury!

Futile - the winds -

To a heart in port -

Done with the compass -

Done with the chart!

Rowing in Eden -

Ah, the sea!

Might I moor - Tonight -

In thee!

Dickinson did not title her poem, but most know this one as ''Wild Nights.'' Dickinson uses capital letters and punctuation to shape how the poem should be read. The first four words, all capitalized and followed by an exclamation point, should be emphasized when read aloud. Since the first line ends in a punctuation mark, it's what we call an end stopped line. The second and third lines do not end in punctuation, so there's very little pause as you move through them. These lines that go from one to the next without a pause are called enjambed lines. By pausing at commas, periods, and other punctuation, you can get a feel for the ideas of the poem because you're delivering the poem as the poet intended. Also, reading a poem aloud will enable you to hear the sounds of the words, whether they have harsh, soft, or neutral sounds. A line like ''Ah, the sea!'' has a particularly soft sound. Read it aloud. We call those pleasant sounds euphony. That lets you know that the wild nights in this poem are nothing to fear.

This technique takes very little time, and you'll get a good sense of the tone of the poem and know which lines are more significant, but you won't walk away with a deep understanding of the poem's ideas. Consequently, if your purpose is to explore the poem to see if you like it or to start to develop ideas, this technique is for you.

Purpose: Discussion

Let's imagine you're in a class, and you've been given ''Wild Nights'' as part of a class discussion. You're asked to read it silently and to be prepared to discuss. This next technique gives you some starting points to be able to talk about a poem that's new to you. Start by scanning the right side of the poem. Note which lines rhyme and which lines don't. Examine the way the poem is structured. Is it written in groups of lines? How many lines are in each group? Check for punctuation and capitalization and see if the poem displays any patterns. Count the syllables in each line; is there a regular pattern to those? If you're familiar with traditional poetic structures, you should also check to see if the poem follows one of those patterns. For instance, is it a sonnet, a 14 lined poem that presents a problem then offers a solution? If so, then you know where to look for the lines that state the problem and those that propose a solution. All of these questions give you an opportunity to launch a discussion in very little time. In this Dickinson poem, you may notice that most lines have four syllables, and while Dickinson uses rhyme, the poem avoids a predictable pattern. These observations about structure give you the baseline that will help you build an interpretation.

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