FUNNY WOMEN #102: How to Read a Poem


For thousands–or perhaps billions–of years, poetry has been done by poets. There was Shakespeare, Maya Angelou, and others. To write poetry, to catch the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings or whatever, one must recollect in tranquility, which is pretty much achieved without a lot of effort. But someone needs to read poetry, to keep it from piling up. How exactly is this accomplished? As Robert Frost, a poet, once said, “A poem begins as a lump in the throat, but most of them are benign.”

First, read with a pencil, or if that doesn’t work, your eyes.

Look at the format of the poem. Are the lines continuous or broken up? How long are the lines? Are they arranged into dense blocks of text? Could you find a shorter, less crammed poem to read, for example one of those poems shaped like the thing they’re about? A poem about oatmeal that is shaped like oatmeal, or a poem about shopping that is shaped like a shoe?

Next read the title. It may tell you exactly what the poem is about, eliminating difficulty. For instance, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is about an urn that is Grecian, so that takes care of that.

To fully understand poetry, familiarize yourself with the elements of a poem, such as meter, which is 3.28 feet. Scan the poem, ideally in Photoshop, so you can correct the color balance and add lens flares, etc. Look for any images (from the French images). Images include trees, flowers, moonlight; in some cases all three. Circle each image and write “image” in the margin, so you won’t forget them, as to make them memorable. There are similes and metaphors also (you learned about these in third grade and can disregard them). Some poems rhyme–these are what’s known as old-timey poems. Many poems feature enjambment, which today can be treated with physical therapy.

It is important to nail down the type of poem you have: there are epic poems, limericks, and whatnot. There are villanelles, which are not villainous (only bad at reading social cues), and sestinas, which occur in the early afternoon, often after the midday meal. Most likely there are other types of poems out there, but we may never know for sure.

Now that you know the basics, delve deeper. An effective poem draws you into a conversation, like this:

You: You got anything going on this weekend?

Poem: Not much. Just finishing up my community service for that DUI.

Did you know that poetry is actually meant to be read aloud? The louder, the better. Try taking your poem to a coffee shop, library, synagogue, etc., and reading it at the top of your lungs. Right away people will take notice of your literary savoir faire (literally “I-don’t-know-what”).

One misconception people have about poetry is that it is written in “code,” one they aren’t smart enough to understand. In fact, if you do not comprehend a poem, you may return it. Send a SASE and copy of the defective poem to:

Returns Center
1402 Innovation Park
Suite 138
Battle Creek, MI 49014

You should receive a new poem in six to eights weeks. The old poem will be delivered by barge to a South American landfill.

With top-notch poetry reading abilities, you will enjoy accompanying wealth and popularity. Forget hiding behind a lamp when your friends discuss “The Raven.” Instead you may deduce from context clues, “That’s about a scary bird!” Sit back and let the compliments roll in.

We’re aware that many people who read poems go on to write them, but with the right medication you can prevent this from happening.


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Katie Burgess teaches at the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities. Read more at More from this author →