How to Read Poetry: for those who need help ‘getting it’

While tutoring a group of students from secondary school, they expressed a concern about not ‘getting’ poetry, and it mainly came down to not understanding what the poet was ‘going on about’.

Reading a poem can be hard, like picking apart an elaborate puzzle and putting it back together again in a way you can understand, but it is just another thing that needs to be practiced and can unlock a whole area of literature that may have been previously shrouded in doubt and fear. For my students it was definitely the case, and since our couple of workshops on poetry analysis, they have felt a lot more confident to read poetry at school and by themselves without zoning out…or so they say.

Here are the key tips we went through in order to pick apart a poem for their GCSE English exam:

  1. Do some research on the author – look at some of their other works, whether they had any particular tribulations in their life, maybe if they have any specific political views. For example, if a poet worked as a journalist in the Middle East, knowing this may be key to understanding their work.
  2. Research the context of the poem – find out about the country it originates from, what the culture is like there, whether it is from a particular period of time in that country’s history, and if it was a time of political change. All these things will shed some light as to why this poem was written.
  3. Start reading – aloud. This allows you to connect with the words as well as the way the poem sounds. If the poem is written by an Irish poet, for example Seasmus Heaney, try and imagine it spoken with an Irish accent – or try out your own! Some poems from the modern era are written phonetically to further explore how language, culture and accents can affect how people are judged on these things.
  4. Next, start to highlight any rhyme schemes you hear using letters. In Shakespeare’s sonnets, the rhyme scheme is often ABABCDCD and ending with GG. The last two lines reflect an overarching meaning or message of the poem, and might also be the case for other works that are not Elizabethan.
  5. After this, make a note of the number of syllables in each line. If you start to see a pattern, ask yourself why that might be, and begin to draw initial conclusions.
  6. By now you should have read the poem a few of times, once aloud and a couple of times while you were looking for clues. On your page or wherever you are making notes, write down a list of possible meanings that the poem could be trying to communicate.
  7. Look at the language used and think about why the poet has used those specific words. Are they all related in some way? Some poems use imagery based on something specific like nature or pain to represent and describe their thoughts.
  8. Based on this further analysis, start to draw further conclusions on what the poem is trying to tell you. Many poems use a story or a situation to explain a deeper issue, perhaps about politics or religion, so you don’t want to miss the big picture while you’re looking for the little things.
  9. Once you’ve narrowed the meanings or messages down a bit, annotate the poem focussing on how the poetic devices enhance what the poet is trying to communicate. If you have to appraise the poem, start thinking about how successful this communication of ideas is.
  10. Select another famous work by the poet to get a good idea about their style and common themes. Some poets will focus mainly on love and religion, while others on politics.

 Hope this helps and sends any students back to the classroom with a few tips for their poetry lessons!

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