Students often tell me that they don’t like poetry. This seems to be a common attitude among high school students, and I can’t blame them. When I was in high school, I might have said the same thing. However, I find that following a few steps when approaching a new poem consistently helps students understand (and even enjoy!) poetry.
1. Read the poem out loud. Poetry often has a rhythm to it that can’t be appreciated when we read the poem in our heads. The sound of the words, which makes poetry so pleasant to listen to, requires that we take the time to read the poem out loud.
2. Read the poem—again. Poetic language is generally more difficult to understand than prose, so it is necessary to read it more than once to fully comprehend its meaning.
3. Now, read the poem line-by-line. On this read through, begin your hunt for interesting aspects of the poem. Look for particularly striking images, unusual word choice, and literary devices. What is the poem saying on both the literal and figurative level?
4. Form matters. Unlike prose, which is written in block paragraphs filling a whole page, poetic line often has breaks and uneven spacing. Students sometimes neglect to think about the way the poem appears on the page and how this might be working in tandem with its content.
On this point, take a look at the unique excerpt from the poem “Map of the Americas” by Two-Spirit Cherokee poet Qwo-Li Driskill. In this excerpt, the body of the speaker is compared to the map of the Western Hemisphere.
This excerpt is a perfect example of how form and content work together in unique and creative ways.
If you’d like to learn more about how to read poetry (or how to take your analysis one step further and write about poetry), schedule an appointment with one of our writing coaches. We love poetry, and you can, too!
P.S. If you’re interested in reading the rest of the poem, you can find it (and many other thought-provoking poems) in Driskill’s collection, Walking with Ghosts.