5 Tips For How To Read Poetry: Life Kit Reading poetry doesn't have to be homework. This episode has five tips for all you poetry naysayers to find poetry that speaks to you.

We need art right now. Here's how to get into poetry

We need art right now. Here's how to get into poetry

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Halisia Hubbard/NPR
5 tips for how to appreciate poetry, from NPR's Life Kit podcast.
Halisia Hubbard/NPR

Listen, I know how this looks. An NPR piece about "how to appreciate poetry" reads like self-parody. I get it! But the world feels pretty scary and overwhelming right now. Poetry can help you process that sadness or anger or fear.

A great poem can be there for you — just like other works of art you hold dear. Franny Choi, an educator and co-host of the poetry podcast VS, says a great poem "makes me want to get out of my chair and pace around the room. It makes me want to throw my hands up and show it to somebody or say it out loud or shout it from the rooftops ... when I have [it], it's the only thing that matters."

But if you haven't flexed your poetry muscle in a while, or if you've always thought poems were the domain of clove cigarette smokers and adjunct professors, that feeling might be a little hard to tap into. Here are five tips that can help you get there.

1. Don't approach poetry like it's school.

It turns out the way poetry is taught in school can be a barrier to entry, at least according to the experts we spoke with.

"Most commonly, people are taught that the way to engage with a poem is by parsing it, by trying to understand it and master it, and be able to write an essay about it," says Choi. "And I think that keeps us from really developing personal relationships with poetry."

Stanzas, meter, form — all that stuff is well and good if you're already bought in, but it doesn't mean anything if you only have a passing interest in poetry.

Rest easy. There's no quiz at the end!

2. Don't worry about "getting it."

Even when there's no formal graded quiz, people still put pressure on themselves to crack a poem, to unlock its meaning or to answer some unanswerable question about what the poet was trying to say. Don't do it!

Harryette Mullen is a professor at UCLA and a poet herself. She says, "People don't trust themselves because they're thinking in the back of their minds, 'there's a right answer, there's a correct answer and I wanna be sure I'm not giving a wrong answer.'"

Instead of trying to answer specific questions when you read a poem, she says to ask yourself some broader questions:

  • What overall impression do you get? 
  • What ideas float around in your mind? 
  • What do you feel? 

Again — there's no test, there's no wrong answer. Just look around in your own brain as you read the poem, and take in what's there.

"Those kind of overall impressions, I think most of us do get," says Mullen. "We are left with something." Whatever that "something" is — trust it!

And Mullen says if something in the poem is throwing you off — whether it be a weird image or a funny phrase — stop, take a breath, and read it again later. Sometimes that can mean right away. Other times it means take a week. Or a month. Or a year.

"Sometimes we change," she says. "The poem is still the same, the text is still the same ... But we return to the poem with a different understanding."

3. Read it out loud.

"We have to remember that poetry was an oral art form before anything else," says Choi. "And that oral tradition has been with us for thousands and thousands of years so I think a lot of information can be gained from reading poems out loud."

As an exercise, you can try reading a poem out loud a few different ways:

  1. Like you're savoring every word, and every syllable, trying out the shapes of the word in your mouth
  2. Like you're explaining something really difficult to someone else.

Fun fact: here at NPR when reporters read their scripts, it's sometimes helpful to have them read them in different ways, with stresses on different words. It helps them find the groove of their writing, which is essentially what you're trying to do with someone else's poetry. You can make the very same words sound entirely different. Try it.

Listen to former Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera read his poem, "Almost Livin' Almost dyin'."

NPR YouTube

4. Visualize the poem.

A poem might offer you a stack of images, but there are plenty of gaps to fill. So go ahead and fill them! Mullen says to think of the poem like it's a movie or a play and you're the director.

"What colors would you use?" she says. "What kind of setting is there? If there's light what kind of light would it be? Harsh light? Twilight? Dusk? Would it be indoors or outdoors? Can you imagine the speaker?

These brain pictures will help illuminate whatever it is you seem to be getting out of the poem. And keep in mind the first two tips: this isn't school, and there isn't a single answer. What you see is what you see.

If you need help — Choi suggests doodling images that really stick out as you read the poem. That might help you find a common theme or a throughline.

5. Read a bunch of poetry.

The experts we talked to say their poetry curriculum in schools was mostly centered around the classical canon — your Shakespeares and your Frosts. But everyone stressed that the world of poetry is a lot bigger than that (not to mention less white, less male, less old). So if poems about walking in the woods when it's snowing aren't your jam, then keep looking — there's something out there for you.

Or better yet, when you can, head to your local poetry reading. Shihan Van Clief and Dante Basco co-founded Da Poetry Lounge — a long-running poetry reading in Los Angeles that takes place every Tuesday.

Van Clief says to be honest about your tastes and what you're looking for — if you're looking for something closer to Shel Silverstein than the latest Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, that's fine.

"There's just as much value in that because it gives them a stepping stone," says Van Clief.

There are readings at libraries and bookstores and bars and clubs. If you can't get to one, try poetry Instagram accounts and YouTube channels. Get started with some recommendations below.

Resources:

We'd love to hear from you. If you have a good life hack, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us at LifeKit@npr.org. Your tip could appear in an upcoming episode.

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The audio version of this story was produced by Andee Tagle.