How to read poetry

Today is the 190th birthday of Emily Dickinson, an incredibly important and well known American poet. She’s also one of a handful of poets that many folks know of at all. Generally speaking, people are not huge fans of poetry. Nearly 90% of Americans do not read poetry in a given year, according to a 2018 survey, and that was even an improvement from two years earlier.

Dog with Emily Dickinson book

Just ask anyone who was assigned to read Emily in high school (or Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, etc.) There are usually several reasons why: Poems are difficult to understand because of ye olde language and references. The deeper, profound meaning of poems is too hard to uncover. They’re just plain stupid and have no point. Now, that’s a little harsh. And more importantly, reading poetry doesn’t have to feel any of these ways.

Often English teachers and even poets don’t do themselves any favors. Take our friend Em, for example, who said: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry.” (You okay there? Maybe try a Snuggie.)

Don’t get me wrong — I love Emily Dickinson. (I took a tour of her home in Amherst, Massachusetts, and even had a T-shirt, much to my family’s chagrin.) But it might be more helpful for today’s readers who are open to trying poetry again to get some advice from contemporary voices. With that in mind, I reached out to some poets and writers who are working today to get some suggestions on how to read poetry for enjoyment, not for a book report.

1. Enjoy the music of the poem

People seem to think that poetry is like a logic puzzle or something when really it’s layered like music. You can like the lyrics or the beat or the sick guitar riff, but the bottom line is how the poem makes you feel. Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón is the book I recommend for people who want get into poetry.

—Kate MacLam, poet (read “My Mailman” and “Dermatitis“)

I remember reading poetry in junior high and high school, and loving and connecting with the sounds and images enough that that gave me pleasure. What was frustrating then, when I got to college, was in literature classes being asked to ignore those things that gave me pleasure to analyze it to death. Poetry has this reputation: ‘Oh, this is difficult. There’s a deep meaning that you have to have be really intelligent or have read zillions of poems to understand.’ And I disagree with that. When you read a poem, you should ask, ‘What gives me pleasure in this poem? Is it a single word or an image?’

—Candace Black, poet, author of Whereabouts: Poems, professor in the creative writing program at Minnesota State University, Mankato

The way we usually learn poetry in high school turns so many people off before they even get started. You don’t have to understand the poem logically! It’s like music — you just have to feel it. Start with contemporary, accessible poets like Ada Limón and Ross Gay or an accessible genre of poetry like spoken word.

—Lorna Pecard, poet

Enjoy the language, structure, and tone even if you don’t understand the poem on the first read. Mark poems that mirror scars in your memories to help you become closer to your obsessions. Talk about the book cover and how it may connect to the poetry collection as a whole. Be honest if you don’t understand the poem; it helps you become a stronger reader (and writer). If you don’t like a poetry collection, you can always learn from it. Find your taste, your obsessions, let that voice hidden in the dark find its light. Poetry is about the process of understanding, never the results of understanding.

—Sengarone Vetsmany, poet (read “Lady of the Woods” and “Traveling home with cherries”)

2. Keep things simple

When people say they have difficulty with poetry, it’s usually because somebody else has raised the bar for enjoying it. And, really, there is no bar. A poem either engages you or it doesn’t, and you just move on. It doesn’t need to be understood — it just needs to be felt or heard. When you read a novel, for example, you engage with the character and the story, and at the end of it, you feel like you’ve been on a journey. Poets are the same way. They’re trying to capture a moment or feeling. They’re stopping time and inviting you into that moment. At the end of it, the poets are not saying, ‘Did you understand me?’ The question poets ask more often is: ‘Did you feel it?’

—Richard Robbins, poet, author of Body Turn to Rain: New & Collected Poems, professor in the creative writing program at MSU Mankato

Stop everything and read “Understanding Poetry Is More Straightforward Than You Think.” Poetry seems like a mystery to a lot of people, something that is hard to crack, hard to write, hard to understand. But it doesn’t have to be. The first step is to simplify the poem by reading it aloud. Yes, out loud — not in your head! You can whisper it if you want, but poetry is better when experienced by the ears as well as the eyes.

Then you must identify what is literally happening in the poem. Don’t read too deeply. If you’re familiar with the concept “read between the lines,” this is the opposite. Go line by line, stanza by stanza, or sentence by sentence — whatever is easiest — and really break down the poem.  If you encounter words or concepts that you think should be common knowledge, or you think you knew what it meant once, go ahead and look it up. Once the poem is understood on the surface, you can get into it on a deeper level.

—Emily Johnson, nonfiction writer, associate lecturer at University of Wisconsin-River Falls

Think about each line in a poem as a tiny mini-poem. If you don’t get or like an entire poem, you can still hone in on units of the poem (individual lines or maybe stanzas) that you do like or get. These moments can be a sort of starting place for getting meaning and significance out of the poem. But not knowing is also kind of the point of poetry. John Keats called this idea ‘Negative Capability’ and described it as people’s capability for “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” That’s important. Lastly, I think “Project” by Rae Armantrout is perfect for poetry beginners. It’s not an easy poem, but it’s very accessible. And it’s becoming one of my favorite poems.

—Tyler Barton, fiction writer and poet, author of The Quiet Part Loud: Stories (read three DJ Poems)

3. Read current poets

I like to show those people a poem that is in free verse and has a pop culture reference (musician, technology like a computer or text message, UGG boots, etc.). People need confirmation that poems don’t have to rhyme and don’t have to be about nature or love.

—Erin Dorney, poet, author of I Am Not Famous Anymore: Poems After Shia LaBeouf (read three Adriene poems)

Start with poetry written sometime in the last fifty or sixty years. You might try to find an anthology, something either in print or online that offers work from a variety of people. Read the poems not as puzzles or morality lessons, but as somebody simply talking to you. Find some voices that you’d like to hear more from, and then look for books by those writers.

—Richard Terrill, poet and nonfiction writer, author of What Falls Away Is Always: Poems & Conversations, professor emeritus at MSU Mankato

Only read poetry you like. Even if you don’t know why you like it, keep reading it until you figure out why. And if you don’t like it, or feel like you don’t get it, don’t keep reading it. There is a lot of poetry out there, and even the stuff deemed good by some isn’t worth your time if you don’t like to read it.

—Angela Voras-Hills, poet, author of Louder Birds (read “Chateaubriand” and “Nothing to Undo That Can’t Be Done Again”)

You might not have many poets you like or even know. But even if you have one name (Yesika Salgado or José Olivarez, for example), you can Google search them and more than likely, there’ll also be a “People also search for” list on that page. That’s a good place to start expanding who and what you read.

—Michael Torres, poet and nonfiction writer, author of An Incomplete List of Names, professor in the creative writing program at MSU Mankato (read “Doing Donuts in an ’87 Mustang 5.0, After My Homie Chris Gets Broken Up With” and “All-American Mexican”)

Of course, there’s no wrong way to read poetry. No one can tell you what to like. And Emily Dickinson’s writing might speak to you today in ways that it didn’t before. (If you want to grab a dictionary, reference book of Greek mythology, and the complete sonnets of John Donne, then by all means, go for it.) But the point is not to try so hard. No one’s giving you a grade. By focusing on the parts that are enjoyable and the voices that get you, rather than working to dissect the text, anyone can read poetry.

Not sure where to grab your next poetry collection? Check out this list of independent Twin Cities bookstores, all of which would be happy to help with recommendations!