How to Read a Poem Without Tearing Your Hair Out
Poetry doesn’t have to be painful — you just need to know what you’re looking at.
I’ve been blessed in that I’ve almost always loved poetry. From when I was very small, my mother was reciting Jabberwocky to me, making it exciting and thrilling for a little kid to listen to. Even while I was studying the poems in school, the word games my parents played with me made it easier for me to pick up on the structures and meanings that my peers groaned over.
So my interest in poetry is biased; I was lucky and was given the tools I needed to love it. Most people aren’t. Most people encounter poetry in a classroom setting — they’re told what it should mean and marked down if they read it differently. The poetry is sterilized and academized on a page rather than being allowed to exist as the living, breathing words as it should be.
Here’s the deal. If you’ll give me a minute of your time, I’ll share with you my way of looking at poems and enjoying them. Put down the pitchforks from high school English classes long enough to listen, and hopefully, you’ll be able to not only understand but actually enjoy poetry.
Rhythm is Key
Human beings are remarkable things when it comes to music. We’ve had music since we first came around — people have been singing around campfires since we discovered fire. It’s an extremely human thing to pick out a beat and a rhythm with everything we look at.
Poetry is born from that rhythm. It’s basically just music on a page — lyrical poetry is so named for a reason, after all. That song from that Disney movie that’s stuck in your head? Yep, it’s poetry.
You don’t even need to know all the technical terms for poetic rhythm to enjoy it. All you need to do is “da-DUM” your way through it. Let’s look at an example.
Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky is a fun place to start because it’s a kids’ poem. It’s full of nonsense words and adventure; when you read it out loud, it’s easy to get lost in it. Here’s the second stanza, where we’re introduced to the titular monster:
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”
Roughly half of those words make absolutely no sense, and this is one of the more sensible sections of the poem. So, let’s ignore the words for now. Let’s turn this into a rhythm. As I mentioned, it’s much easier to do if you say the poem out loud to yourself first; that’s true for most poems. Read this stanza out loud, then come join me in the next paragraph.
We’ll use “da” for unstressed syllables (or, syllables that you don’t give much emphasis to) and “DUM” for stressed syllables (ALL THE EMPHASIS). It comes up as:
da-DUM da DUM-da-DUM, da DUM!
da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM!
da-DUM da DUM-da DUM, da DUM
da DUM-da-da DUM-da-DUM!
See how the first three lines are exactly the same? It feels like building tension — you’re being told all about how horrible this creature is, with its teeth and claws. Suddenly there’s another monster, and then the rhythm changes, and what the heck does frumious mean?! Whatever it means, I don’t want to be anywhere near a Bandersnatch if it’s worse than a Jabberwock.
You don’t need to know what the words mean to understand the rhythm. In fact, when you write it without the words, with just the rhythmic markings, it looks like a drum beat. It’s the chorus shifting into the verse, or a bridge building into the finale of a song. By repeating the patterns, Lewis has us paying attention when it changes.
If you look at the rhythm of a poem first, you’ll figure out a lot about what the poet wants you paying attention to, and where the important parts of the story are. If you’re stuck on a poem, turn it into da-DUMs to get your bearings.
Read Sentences, Not Lines
To fly immediately in the face of what I just said (because this is poetry, after all), you can’t always understand a poem by looking at it on a line-by-line basis. Like almost any other piece of literature, poems are usually written in sentences. Those sentences just happen to look a little funny.
While a poet might break up a sentence into separate lines to get the right rhythmic effect, they still decided to write a full sentence for a reason: it conveys a very particular meaning. We understand the conventions of sentences; even if the words are utter nonsense, we can pick up what parts of speech they’re supposed to be with context clues from the words we do understand when they’re presented in a familiar format.
If, after picking up on the rhythm of the piece, you go back and read it as if it were prose (or, non-poetry), you’ll get a much better sense of the story.
Let’s look at our example poem again, shall we? This time, we’ll look at a different section.
‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
This is the first stanza, and boy is it filled with a lot of nonsense. So, to make it easier to understand, let’s write it as a normal sentence and point out some of the bits we already understand.
Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe: All mimsy were the borogoves, and the mome raths outgrabe.
Okay, that’s better. Here’s what we can get out of that:
- Most people will understand that “‘twas” is an outdated way of saying “It was.”
- That’s a good place to start because it lets us know that “brillig,” a word no one understands, is some kind of adjective. So the day was “brillig.”
- Next, we’re told that the “slithy toves” (another adjective, this time paired with a noun of some kind) “gyre,” or gyrate (spin around), and “gimble” (I got nothing on the meaning there) in a place called a “wabe.”
- “Mimsy” is another adjective, which sounds like “whimsy;” we can assume it means something similar.
- The “borogoves” seem to be another kind of creature, as do the “mome raths.”
- “Outgrabe” is a verb that seems to be a pseudo-old-English way of saying “outreach.”
With those context clue guesses in mind, it reads:
“It was brillig, and the slithy toves move in circles and gimble in the wabe: the borogoves were silly and the mome raths reached out.”
That makes a little more sense! Not much, mind you, but it gives us a better idea of the setting we find ourselves in. Your English teacher may disagree with this interpretation, though, which brings me to my next point…
Poetry is Personal
Poetry is extremely, inherently, painfully personal. That’s kind of the point of the genre. Poems are written to express an emotion or garner a feeling — they’re specifically vehicles for feeling, and feelings, as everyone knows, are not facts.
Because of this, there’s no one way to interpret a poem “correctly.” While Jabberwocky will always read like a story of adventure and action to me, others might see it as a horrifying cautionary tale, or a simple exercise in the creation of made-up words with no meaning at all. And we’re all right! Poetry is, in the end, exactly what you interpret it to be.
When we teach poetry, the goal is to make it easier to appreciate the effort that went into it, and the craft behind it. It’s never (or it should never be) to pick out one singular meaning and crown that the “right” interpretation.
It’s one of the most human things in the world to tell a story; we were doing it long before we could write them down or stay in one place long enough for them to stick, and we’ll keep doing it until the stars burn out. Every human being who’s ever lived has had a different interpretation of the world around them, and our stories remind us of that.
Limiting poetry, or any story, really, to a single, linear reading destroys the work; it’s no wonder that so many people hate reading poems if that’s how it was presented to them. If, for just a minute, you let your readers talk about what they see, you’ll immediately get far more discussion, depth, and general interest than you would if you told them what you wanted them to see.
Reading Poetry Doesn’t Have to Hurt
To recap, in case you’re looking for a succinct step-by-step for poetry reading:
- Find the rhythm.
- Read the sentences.
- Tell us what you think of it.
That’s all there is to it! From there, it becomes a discussion between people about what they see and why, which can be great fun. And, if after all of that, you still don’t like poetry…that’s fine. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and it doesn’t have to be. At least now you’ve given it an honest try.
Reading poetry doesn’t have to be like pulling teeth. As long as you know where to start, it can be as easy as gyring and gimbling in the wabe.