How to Read a Poem

How to Read a Poem


UNIT 4: How to Read a Poem

In this Unit, the following aspects will be covered:
- Introduction
- Tips on How to Read a Poem
- How to Read a Poem
- Conclusion

Reading poem is seen as a difficult act for most students. But a good teacher will always encourage students not to have that mentality because it is not true. Poems are the simplest forms of literature. Although some students cannot agree with the mere words, but a teacher should go with them practically so as to prove that the poems are simple. One of the ways to make students believe is by making him or her change the mind towards the poems.

The following are the tips that can make students read, understand and like reading poems:
(1) Poems are not difficult. Encourage them to abandon the notion that poems are difficult.
(2) Read poems aloud. Encourage them that poems are meant to be spoken, so always read them aloud.
(3) Look up a difficult word in a dictionary. If you don’t know a word, look it up in a dictionary or leave it if you have the general meaning of the line.
(4) Tell the students that poems have no hidden meaning. It has known meanings that you have not realized until you read it. Reading poems is just like anything else in life that should be learnt so that to be mastered.
(5) It is a good idea to separate the poet from the speaker of the poem. A poet wears a mask, so don’t equate poet and speaker so that you can deny a poem any imaginative force that lies outside of her lived life.
(6) Note down something as you read a poem. Reading without writing is like walking without moving your arms. You can do it and still reach destination, but it will always feel like you’re missing something essential about the activity.
(7) Importance of reading poems. As your ability to read poems improves, so will your ability to read the news, novels, legal briefs, advertisements, etc.
(8) Reading poetry is not only about reading poetry. It improves syntax and diction which can enhance your awareness of the world, even those things that don’t deal directly in words. A dress, a building, a night sky – all involve systems of pattern-recognition and extrapolation.
(9) Reading poems cultivate an urge to read more poems. Thus, reading poems make the reader wants to read more and become more intelligent and smart.
(10) Reading a good poem doesn’t give you something to talk about. It silences you. Reading a great poem pushes further. It prepares you for the silence that perplexes us all: death.

The students and teacher at this stage, they discuss the guidelines on the better reading of the poem. The following are the stages on How to Read a Poem and understand it:
(1) Read with a pencil
When you are reading a poem with a pencil, you can react to it instantly. You can mark some important points or sections. You can even draw the lines to show connected ideas.
So that to mark your poem well, you should read both silently and aloud with careful listening of the sound and rhythm of the words.
(2) Examine the basic subject of the poem
In this aspect, the reader of the poem considers the following aspects:
Title: What does it tell you about the content of the poem? What tone does it create?

Subject: What is the poem about? This is the basic question to ask oneself you read a poem.

Persona and Situation: Here the reader asks himself/herself several questions like:
Who is talking?
To whom is he talking to?
Under what circumstances?
Where are they?
What do they talk about?
Why do they talk about that?

Paraphrasing a poem: The reader should also be able to paraphrase a poem in words and in written form. That means a students should be able to summarise a poem in either spoken or written form.

Comparison: As the reader reads the poem it is also important to find out if the poem is in comparison with other things like other works of art or situations.

Attitude of the author: What is the author’s attitude toward his/her subject? Is it serious, ironic, satiric, humorous, witty, or hostile?

The Mood of the poem towards the reader. Does the poem appeals to the reader’s mind, emotions or feelings?

(3) Consider the context of the poem
Here the reader should ask himself/herself questions like: Is the poem connected to any allusions or to other literary or historical events? If that is the case, how do these connections add to the meaning of the poem and how are they appropriate? For example, If the reader knows that ‘Your Pain’ is a poem connected to the history of Mozambique he/she can easily connect the content of the poem and the appropriate historical event (but the poem should be analysed as a literary work).
Another question is: What do you know about the poet? This question is also important because it helps the reader to know the history and life of the poet, hence is able to connect the poem with the life and the content of the poem. For example, the reader of ‘Your Pain’ comes to understand that the writer of the poem was a freedom activist.

(4) Study the form of the poem
Here the reader should consider the sound and rhythm of the poem.

He/she should find out if the poem has been composed in metrical patterns (meter); if the poem has rhymes; if the poem has alliteration, assonance, and onomatopoeia; and how these aspects affect the meaning of the poem.

Division of the poem: How the poem is divided. Are there any stanzas, rhymes, and how many verses per stanza?

Organisation of the ideas in the poem: The reader should also consider this aspect. It helps him to know whether the ideas of the poem are organised from simple to complex; from outer to inner; from past to present; from one place to another; or from a certain point to another?

The type of the poem: In this aspect, the reader discusses the type or genre of the poem and what are expected from such kind of a poem.

(5) Look at the word choice of the poem
It is not bad for the reader to take a dictionary with him. At this part, the reader is advised to list all verbs in the poem and find out what actions they tell about the poem.

And if there are any difficult or confusing words, the reader should take a dictionary and look up for the specific words.
Mood of the poem: The choice of words creates the mood of the poem. So it is good to observe the words/vocabularies used in the poem in order to tell about the mood of the poem.

Consider the symbolism used. Here the reader should study carefully the used symbols in the poem in order to know what they stand for or what they represent in the poem and in the real life situations.

Identify figurative language. This is the language full of figures of speech. The reader as he/she reads should also consider the figures of speech used in order to understand their effect in delivering the message of the poem. The reader should consider the following; similes, metaphors, hyperbole, oxymoron, paradox, personification and others.

(6) Conclude reading a poem
The reader should conclude reading the poem by asking himself/herself questions such as ‘What is the purpose of this poem’? Is it relevant to the contemporary societies?. These are the crucial questions because they give the glimpse on the purpose of the poem and its relevance to the societies in question.

After reading a poem effectively like this, students and teacher can now analyse the particular poem efficiently.

The poems are most of the time recited. Poems are meant to be read aloud, with much consideration of rhythm and meter included in them. Thus, you should recite a poem accordingly in order to get it fuller meaning and appreciation. More will be learnt on the aspect of How to Write a Poem.
These Reading Skills Will Make Your Students Good Readers and Critics of Poetry.
As Literature teacher, collaborate with students to create posters on this topic and sick them on the Walls of the Classroom, on Classroom noticeboard, or in the school library for students to check as reminders and for more understanding!

(1) Daniel, K et al (ed.) (2003) Elements of Literature: Fourth Course with Readings in World Literature; Florida Edition, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Austin.

(2) Daniel, K et al (ed.) (2003) Elements of Literature: Sixth Course; Literature of Britain with World Classics; Florida Edition, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Austin.

(3) Kinsella, K et al (2003) Prentice Hall Literature: Timeless Voices, Timeless Themes; Copper Level, Pearson, Upper Saddle River.


Emmanuel Kachele

Emmanuel Kachele is a founder and Blogger of KACHELE ONLINE Blog, an educational blog where 'O' Level English - 'OLE', 'A' Level English (ALE) and other related teaching and life skills are shared extensively. This is an online center for all Tanzanian Secondary School English Language students and teachers (Forms I-VI) and all interested English Language learners and teachers worldwide.

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