How to Read and Enjoy a Poem

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Reading a poem is not like reading a story. Many people do not enjoy poetry simply because they read it like it is a story and do not approach it more like appreciating a song. A poem should be approached more like a song than a story.

Poetry does not simply convey information to our minds, like a story, but it actually imparts itself by way of one or more of a number of different poetic devices and characteristics, such as the music and sound of language, the cadence, the tone, the interplay of word meanings both figurative and literal, charged language, its shape, its pace, and on. These characteristics and devices of a poem convey additional meaning and say more than just the words themselves.

That is why a poem needs to be read again and again to be absorbed. It is more like a song or musical piece that we listen to over and over again in order to fully enjoy and appreciate. Even if the poem tells a story, it is still a poetic story and must be approached as a poem. Poetry has its full impact in repetition. It is in the reading and listening, again and again, that subtle nuances are manifest, that intricacies unfold, that the profound is reached. That’s when a poem really lives, impressing itself on the heart and not just the mind.

A poem should be engaged rather than just read. Don't read a poem just to gather information, sink your teeth into it and suck the juices out of it. You cannot get the juices out of a poem in one read anymore than you can get the juices out of a piece of fruit by one bite. The real joy and depth in a poem is in the repeated hearings or readings.

So when you come to a poem, read it at least five times on your initial engagement as follows:

The first time, read it at a natural pace and follow the poem along just as it reads in order to get what jumps out at you and to see what it seems to be saying on the surface.

The second time, read it slowly and emphasize the cadence, the beat, the pauses, the sounds and rhythm, the rhymes.

Then, read it out loud and really listen to it with your ears.

The fourth time you read it, consider key words and phrases, ponder the meaning of key words, quickly consider the relation of these words to the rest of the poem, look at any repeating structures or phrases, what do they emphasize, make sure you understand each word in the poem, dictionary meanings as well as common meaning and usage, notice any references to outside sources or literary works and what these allusions mean or bring into this poem.

Finally, read it again at a natural pace and follow the poem along, and let it speak to you with all its added meaning from your first four readings.

If you follow this simple pattern and give a poem the time it deserves, new elements will resonate in your heart with each reading. You will see or hear things that you did not see and hear on previous readings. New meanings will pop out at you. You will make connections that eluded you on the initial reading. Deeper understanding will give you pause and thrill your heart. Only then can you determine whether or not you truly appreciate a poem.

If you appreciate the poem after these initial readings, put it aside and plan to come back to it on another day. Within a week or so, read it again at least twice, once out loud. Follow it along at its natural pace the first time, and then ponder it more deeply the second time, pausing to reconsider key words and phrases.

After repeating this a few times, if you still love the poem and new things are still coming to light, put it on your favorites list and come back to read it frequently.  Read it as many times as you like and if you like to read it aloud for its sound and music, do it. Enjoy it fully the way you want to.

Favorite poems become favorites because of how they roll off the tongue, because of their interesting sounds, because of the beauty of the language and words employed, and because of the charged and compact meanings in the words and phrases. As you engage poetry and let it live through repeated readings of poems, many will become your favorites and you'll recite them to yourself for enjoyment through the many years ahead.

Down the road, you will still be mining the rich depth of that poem you love, that poem that says what reaches your heart in such a perfect way that it thrills you each time you read it. ••••

by: DE Navarro, © 2014, NavWorks Press. Permission is granted for this essay, How to Read and Enjoy a Poem, to be copied and posted or published freely anywhere as long as this byline, copyright mark, and permission statement are included with the essay.

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