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How to Read Poetry

Frightened by Frost? Distressed by Dickinson? Improve your understanding and enjoyment of poetry by following these steps.


  • Step 1: Read poem several times Read the poem at least three times. Next, read it slowly, paying attention to individual lines or groups of words. Finally, read it aloud, focusing on the sound of the poem.
  • TIP: Don’t look too hard for meaning and symbols. It's important not to "overwork" a poem.
  • Step 2: Think about structure Think about the structure of the poem. Does it have a rhyme scheme? Is there a pattern, or is it free verse? Is there repetition? Consult a literary dictionary to learn about specific forms, such as the sonnet, villanelle, and sestina.
  • Step 3: Contemplate the content Contemplate the content of the poem. What happens in the poem? What is the mood? Is there a conflict? What seems to be the theme?
  • TIP: The author of the poem may also be the narrator, but often the narrator is a character the author invents.
  • Step 4: Focus on sounds Focus on the way the poem sounds. Repetition of initial consonant sounds is called alliteration. Repetition of vowel sounds is called assonance. Look for a pattern of accented and unaccented syllables to find a poem's rhythm.
  • Step 5: Look for figurative language Look for figurative language. Poems often use simile and metaphor to compare feelings and things. Personification occurs when human qualities are attributed to non-human things, and synecdoche substitutes a part for the whole.
  • TIP: A literary dictionary or handbook is a handy resource for defining different types of figurative language.
  • Step 6: Think about voice Think about the voice of the poem. What is the point of view of the narrator? Is the tone intimate or distant? Is the language formal or informal?
  • Step 7: Put it all together Put it all together and enjoy reading the poem according to your own analysis. Use your new skill often – there's a whole world of poetry to discover beyond "Roses are red, violets are blue."
  • FACT: Did you know? The U.S. poet laureate presides over the poetry series at the Library of Congress and develops special projects to advance poetry in American society.

You Will Need

  • A poem
  • Patience
  • A literary dictionary or handbook

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