a group of people reading poetry

Reading poetry

Lemn SissayPoet Lemn Sissay shares his ideas about How To Read Poetry

"Always remember there are as many helpful signposts in poetry as there are in every day language"

Outside of those who read poetry all the time there's the majority who hear poetry at "Occasions" - Births, Deaths and Marriages. Let's look at what happens, say, at a wedding when a poem is read. First, there's silence.

So my first suggestion on How To Read a Poem comes from that. Find a quiet space. It doesn't matter if there are many people around you. Find a quiet space. Poems can be noisy and at the same time they can whisper. For both reasons a quiet place and a comfortable seating position are ideal. You'd be surprised how many there are once you look. You've opened the poem. Now read it once, straight through. You should get a strong flavour of what it is about. Is it being told in a way that enhances this? Best of all, how does it feel? There's no need to fully answer these questions yet. They should be percolating inside. You are simply opening yourself, emotionally and intellectually, to the poem. There is a chemical reaction when a reader reads a poem - be aware of this. You are stepping into someone else's world: adjusting to a new atmosphere, refocusing your eyes to new objects and happenings.

Now, after reading it once, go back. Begin with the title. These are the Portals to the poem. And from the first line, the first word, see that the poet has left signposts, some more obvious than others, that shall guide you along its terrain. These signposts can be very complex or very simple or both. Metaphor, symbolism, simile, alliteration, the shape of the poem on the page, the voice of the poem, repetition, assonance, cacophony, meter, pace, are just some of the many signposts. Always remember that there are as many signposts in poetry as there are in every day language. Not only does a poem paint pictures in the mind, but it allows you to walk inside the picture. There is an imperceptible point where you and the poem join as one.

All poems have a shape on the page. It's the first thing you see when you look at the page. It is actually your first impression. You will process this subconsciously. Simple things register, like whether it is a long or a short poem. You will see if its lines finish irregularly or whether they end at the same point on each line. You will register the stanzas and their shape. Your knowledge of poetry may allow you to identify the form in the physicality at a glance - a sonnet, free verse, a ballad, a list poem. It doesn't matter how large or small your knowledge of forms is. The poem's shape will always be the first impression.

And now to the title. The title should tell you a lot. Not that it should indicate what the poem is about. But it should tell you a little about style. It could be one word. It could be ten. It's a teaser. The butterflies in the stomach of your first ever date. The title is welcoming you to the tone of the poem.

What is the voice is the poem? Is it the voice of the poet? Is the poet taking you by the hand into the world of the poem? Or is the poet using someone else's voice? Is there an accent indicated in the speech? Are the words angular or soft? Is his tone gentle or stark?

Where is the poem taking you? Are there actual places - what are they? Are there Objects? People? See those places, people and objects. Visualise them. Smell them. Hear them. Touch them? Think of your five senses. The poet is trying to stimulate these senses. Reading is not a passive action.

What does it mean? Could the poet be describing one thing but meaning another? This can be done through metaphor or through simile or through symbols.

Are there things in the poem that could signify that they are a symbol? The house described in the poem could be a symbol of the poet's past. Symbols are around us all the time. On a good day when we are feeling good we will often comment on the good weather. On a bad day when we feel bad we will often comment on the bad weather. This is a simple example of metaphor. Think of this as a simple analogy for how to read poetry. What does it mean?

What is the rhythm of the piece? There are many, many different rhythms in poems. Does your poem have a rhythm? All poetry has a rhythm of one kind or another. How is the rhythm established? Some poems have rhythm through the actual amount of syllables in each line. But rhythm is always established through the sound of the words next to each other. Where does this happen in the poem? How does the rhythm interact with what the poem is about?

Where is the action? Action is more a term used in Drama, in plays. Action indicates the movement - the twists and turns of the piece.

Where is the emotion in the poem and the journey? When all these things and much, much more are placed together they invoke emotion. All poetry invokes emotions. What does this poem invoke? Is it Laughter or Sadness or Melancholy? Or all of these? Where did the poem take you? What was its journey? What does the poem tell you that was NOT written?

Lemn Sissay
July 20th 2006

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