6 Tips for Reading Poetry

6 tips for reading poetry

In Expert Tips by Julia Malacoff

6 Tips for Reading Poetry

It’s safe to say most of us read — and maybe even recited — poetry back in grade school. Beyond those early exposures, though, even avid readers may avoid poetry out of intimidation, unfamiliarity, or force of habit. But with popular poets like Amanda Gorman, Rupi Kaur, and Cleo Wade shining a spotlight on the art form, you might wonder how to dip your toes back into the world of verse.

Here, experts share their best advice for getting into, and thoroughly enjoying, poetry.

1. Don’t stress about “not getting it.”

When it comes to reading poetry, many people feel pressure to understand it on a deeper level. “The best advice is to give yourself permission to not understand every line,” says poet Debora Kuan. It’s OK to simply enjoy poetry you read without feeling like you have to understand the intent behind every detail. “I like to think of a person coming to view modern art for the first time,” Kuan explains. “You're allowed to just enjoy color, or shape, or the gesture created by a hand holding a brush. If you come from a place of ‘will I get it?’ you're creating an unnecessary high-stakes situation that ignores the pleasure that should come with reading.”

2. Know that poetry is more accessible than you might imagine.

Some readers see poetry as inherently difficult, and this can set you up for having a hard time enjoying it, Kuan points out. “Much of what's good in contemporary poetry right now is fairly accessible. I'm thinking of Ocean Vuong, Tina Chang, Victoria Chang, Analicia Sotelo, Jenny George, Morgan Parker, Tracy K. Smith, and Kate Baer, to name a few.”

Poetry is also more accessible than ever in the sense you can find a lot of it for free. “The beauty of the internet is that you can read full poems online and see if you're interested in that poet's work enough to check out their books; you can also browse poems on [the] Poetry Foundation's website and see what you like there,” Kuan says. There are also lots of poetry podcasts where poets discuss their work, such as PoetryNow.

3. Read (and listen to) poems aloud.

“If you're new to poetry, you might find it helpful to hear a poem aloud, which can sometimes add a lot to your experience of it or the process of making it,” Kuan says.

As far as right or wrong ways to read a poem out loud, there aren’t really any, notes Marjorie Maddox, professor of English and creative writing at Lock Haven University, and author of Inside Out: Poems on Writing and Reading Poems with Insider Exercises. “I prefer to slow down, avoid the overly dramatic (particularly sing-songy patterns that can become unintentionally comical), and treat the line break like a half-comma.” A good place to start is to listen to poets reading their own poems, Maddox says. Note what reading styles you find most impactful, and consider giving them a try on your own. You might start with some poetry audiobooks, such as Jessica Care Moore’s We Want Our Bodies BackThe Poems of T.S. Eliot Read by Jeremy Irons, or Black Imagination: Black Voices on Black Futures, curated by Natasha Marin.

4. Consider the line breaks and punctuation.

“Another unique element of a poem is line breaks,” says Jen Benka, president and executive director of the Academy of American Poets. When reading a poem out loud, it can be helpful to pause at the end of each line to get a sense of how the poet’s choice to break the line where they did adds additional meaning, Benka adds. “Then, I like to read the poem again without pausing at the line break, but rather at the end of the poet’s thought.”

5. Read poems about your interests.

Maddox’s advice: Read about what most interests you by poets who most intrigue you. One way to figure out which poets and topics you like best is to expose yourself to poetry as often as possible. “One easy way to explore both classic and contemporary poets is to sign up for poem-a-day emails. Often these are either free or cost only the price of a cup-of-coffee (or two) for engaging work delivered right to your inbox.”

Some examples include Poem-a-Day by Poets.org, Poem of The Day by the Poetry Foundation, and Every Day Poems by Tweetspeak Poetry. Literary journals may also be a good place to start, Maddox says. “Pick an area of interest, and, more likely than not, you’ll find a literary journal that speaks to what most intrigues you: the environment, civil rights, comic book heroes, LGBTQ, magical realism, formalism, spirituality — and just about anything else you can imagine.”

6. Don’t give up.

“I believe that there is at least one poet for everybody, but it takes time to find the person(s) whose writing speaks to you deeply, powerfully, profoundly,” Benka says. “The benefit of reading different poems and books of poetry and eventually finding your poet(s) is having works of art in language that might shape the way you think, comfort you in hard times, and enrich your life by prompting reflection about what it means to be alive.”


About the Author: Julia Malacoff

Julia is a freelance writer and editor who holds a BA in Art History from Wellesley College, and is also a certified personal trainer and nutrition coach. Her work experience includes writing, reporting, and editing for top publications, including Shape, InStyle, Cosmopolitan, as well as leading brands like Nike, Aveeno, and Precision Nutrition. She lives in London with her husband and two cocker spaniels. An avid reader, you can find her devouring her book club's latest pick — or anything by Zadie Smith, Blake Crouch, and Jeffrey Eugenides.