A poem can be pretty. But it can also be daunting. We know many people would love to read poetry but they often don’t know how to. The words are beautiful and it feels lovely but it doesn’t stick to you the way prose tends to. Never fear, we’re here to break it down for you.
Let go of preconceived notions
Most of us approach a poem thinking we won’t understand it and are seldom surprised when we don’t (or we are shocked when we do). The first step to understanding poetry is to approach it with an open mindset. Let go of what you know or have heard of a certain poet or writer. Begin with an empty mind. The only rule is not to rush or skip over words and sections.
Then, read it aloud
Poems are meant to be read aloud so don’t hesitate to do so. Consider the sound of each word as you hear it. Take pleasure in them. Is there anything that stands out? Do any of the words rhyme? Are there sounds that seem similar? Does any section of the poem have a rhythm? The first step to understanding a poem is to hear what’s going on. Sometimes, you can have a friend read out a poem to you. Allow yourself the chance to read it a few different ways so that you can settle into the natural flow of the poem. If it’s a poem you want to ruminate on, record yourself reading it and listen to it a few times.
Now re-read it for meaning
The second read is where you should look up definitions and pronunciations of words you don’t know and go through the footnotes (if there are any). You can’t fully understand a poem if you don’t understand all the words. If there’s historical context or the poem is referencing a specific event you aren’t familiar with, look that up too. For instance, if you are reading a piece that seems overtly political, you will benefit from some knowledge of the poet’s life and times. Having some background knowledge about the context will add to the gravity of the poem. It can make reading the poem seem sacrosanct.
Look out for clues
Keep your eyes out for clues you might have missed while reading the poem out loud. Are there words that are used as a metaphor? Is there repetition to hit home a deeper theme? Who is the poet writing about and who is s/he writing for? Mulling over these will help you find the meaning behind the words. What is the mood that’s evoked in the poem? And how does the poet accomplish it? Read the poem a few more times to consider how not only the meanings of words but also their sound and the poem’s rhythms help to set the mood.
Foster a connection (and don’t worry if you can’t)
Poetry is all about connection, about how you feel while and after reading it. If you sometimes feel you can’t connect with a poem no matter how hard you try, put it away and come back to it later. Don’t force yourself to feel things. You might come back to a poem several months or even years later to find that it resonates in a way it never did before. But don’t just give up because the stanzas look intimidating. Almost every poem has an element of surprise that will change how you look at it or what you take away from it. Sometimes just letting the words wash over you can have an extremely cathartic effect.