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!


Why Billy Collins told me to eff off

Billy Collins reads in Clowes Auditorium at Central Library (not Butler University) in Indianapolis.

Billy Collins reads in Clowes Auditorium at Central Library (not Butler University) in Indianapolis.

Poet Billy Collins looked at me, across the book signing table, and said, “How about: Go fuck yourself?” The former United States poet laureate stared through his round glasses, face stone serious expression. Quite literally, I was asking for it.

Billy Collins read Saturday, Nov. 8, at Central Library as a part of Vonnegut Fest 2014, hosted by the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library. Collins didn’t wait to bring out the humor at Central Library. From the get-go, he quipped in his verse and conversation.

Humor is key to Collins’s work. However, he waited until his thirties before placing funny lines into his work, since he didn’t want to be considered a light verse poet. He knew at an early age that he wanted to be a poet, but thought that meant being serious, dark, all the time. “I knew two things about poetry,” he said. “One, it was very hard to understand, and two, poets were all miserable.”

Collins first read some fresh poems, straight off the printer, I assume, or the sheets would’ve been wrinkled. Two spoke about his cat, Audrey, who is so dark that she’s impossible to photograph. In one poem, Collins said the dark, furry mass walks toward him he sees two yellow circles, but only one circle when she walks away. “I never thought that would make it into a poem,” he commented.

He introduced another poem about a specific poet’s hardship—receiving advice. Although novel writers probably don’t face this problem, he said, every poet in the room would understand. “People who do this are always, always wrong,” he said, then read:

“The Suggestion Box”

It all began fairly early in the day

at the coffee shop as it turned out

when the usual waitress said

I’ll bet you’re going to write a poem about this

after she had knocked a cup of coffee into my lap.

The poem describes other friends and acquaintances telling the speaker what to write about, including a fire drill, a dirigible, and a stranger’s completely tattooed face. It causes the speaker to wonder, “Why is everyone being so helpful?” The poem ends with a pair of ducks, and the female duck, in an Irish brogue, tells the speaker he will probably write a poem about this exchange.

Poet Billy Collins.

Poet Billy Collins said reading aloud helps the poet catch syntactical issues that are hard to read. It’s not so much about gauging audience response.

The ducks drifted into the poem as a device to help him stop. The poet’s task, he said, is to write enough that the reader doesn’t want to read more, and enough that the poet doesn’t want to write more. “How do you get to that point of mutual satisfaction?” he asked.

He read a plethora of poems, including “To My Favorite 17-Year-Old High School Girl,” “A Dog on His Master,” “The Lanyard,” and “The Death of the Hat.” Collins pointed to these last two as poems that start out frivolous but become serious. This is how modern poets use humor, he said, as a strategy. If he had decided to draft an elegy for his mother and another for his father, it would’ve been too much. Poets need to start with small things let the poems flow into something larger.

“You can’t approach these things frontally—or, I think it’s dangerous,” he said. “You allow these emotional things to come into a poem that was otherwise unaware of them.”

When the reading ended, I waited, the last person in line, for him to sign my copy of Aimless Love. A Vonnegut Library volunteer handed out sticky notes and asked everyone to spell out what they’d like the poet to write in their books. I wrote:

Aimless Love by  Billy Collins.Dear James,

Something obscene.

-Billy Collins

I thought he’d transcribe it verbatim. Then I could say, Billy Collins wrote Something obscene in my book. He took as an open-ended instruction—a blank check, like I’d jotted [Something obscene]—and used the occasion to verbally abuse me. What an honor!

In the end, he jotted out some cartoon swears—exclamation points, furious squiggles—but not before suggesting, “How about: Dear James, Stop fucking following me?”

That time I visited Emily Dickinson’s house

When I was an intern at Metonymy Media, I wrote a lot of blogs. Some were about cars or travel, and some were about other things that I had more or less interest in. But one of my favorite blogs was one I wrote about a trip that I took to the Emily Dickinson House in Amherst, Mass. I started this blog about five times, because I didn’t know exactly what I was trying to say—not that I didn’t have anything to say.

The Emily Dickinson house is located in Amherst, Mass., where the poet spent almost all of her life.

The Emily Dickinson house is located in Amherst, Mass., where the poet spent almost all of her life.

The problem with writing what you’re passionate about is there is too much to say. I have been reading Emily Dickinson since middle school. I have been extremely interested in her work and her life. And after a 90-minute tour of her house and her brother Austin’s house—called The Evergreens, which sits right next door—I had even more to say.

I thought that I wouldn’t be able to say anything for a while, but I took some solace in these words from who else but Emily Dickinson:

Life is but life, and death but death!

Bliss is but bliss, and breath but breath!

And if, indeed, I fail,

At least to know the worst is sweet.

Defeat means nothing but defeat,

No drearier can prevail.

I think it turned out all right, but you can read it here and decide for yourself.



Here I am at the official-looking podium, wearing official-looking flannel.


I am lecturing at UIndy about my trip to Europe in 2011!

Not really. But I am reading my poem “Paris” (the 3rd prize winner of the university’s poetry contest).

I wrote this poem about one day that my girlfriend and I were walking around the city. We had visited the catacombs, La Tour Eiffel, the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay during the previous days. The day that inspired this poem was a loosely planned stride around la ville d’amour, including a long walk along the river.

That day we ate at a panini shop off some side street near the Seine. I have no idea where it was exactly. If I went back and tried to find it, I would probably feel like I was in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. At this restaurant, though, Stephanie and I had the best vegetarian food after leaving England a week prior. France is big on food, so long as you eat meat.

So I hope you enjoy this poem as much as I enjoyed that sandwich:


striding along the Seine, I have to laugh out,

resist the yell —Vous êtes le plus Français!—

at a man with striped sweater and baguette.


snow globe eyes wide, rotate every way—

like boules à neige that tourists are buying,

paying in camera clicks on les Champs-Elysées.


the Seine’s banks, maybe in waiting,

once were stones chiseled into statue

who forsook their humble beginning,


rose to the Louvre (small move, grand adieu),

after which Paris hired a new shore—

whose sidewalk splendor burns soul and shoe.


but a set of gray stairs climbs to a door

like a bear cave—ours brun ou noir ou gris?

we climb up, car il n’y a pas d’ascenseur.


dark crags hidden where everyone can see

is this an entrance possibly to the catacombs

where National Geographic says people party?


door opens and people emerge from the tomb

rushing-pushed-passed, down the staircase.

door being open, I peer cautious into the room


and some sign informs: St. Michel/Notre-Dame.

I reply: Stephanie, it’s another Métro entryway

but not iconographic for photographs, like some


in pictures for sale along Monets and Manets

cheap postcards, flags, each 3 euros per pop

outside former train station, Musée d’Orsay.


we pick a side-street, some petit panini shop

that offers more food (pour nous végétariens)

better service and cost, Orangina in a tab top.


we don’t choose a fancy restaurant, not again,

where waiter stereotypes straight from film

want to yell—Vous êtes le plus Américain!




There was some spotlight in the sky that night. Below the Seine is lit up by boats. The people riding in said boats must have been blind, or ended up that way afterwards.



I opted out of ending the poem with a melodramatic Fin. 

Although I do not have a photo of the situation that the poem describes, I do have a picture of the Seine from the top of La Tour Eiffel. It was freezing up there. But I could have warmed up with a glass of champagne for a mere 30 euros. I was a cheapskate and opted out of that as well. However, the forty couples that got engaged up there sprung for drinks. Hey, if you already spent a fortune on a ring and a trip to Paris and sweated out the stress up to that instant, you probably deserve (and definitely need) a drink. Am I right?