5 Tips For How To Read Poetry: Life Kit For National Poetry Month, which takes place in April, poets share advice on how to make a meaningful connection with poetry.

To read poetry like a poet, don't worry about 'getting it'

To read poetry like a poet, don't worry about 'getting it'

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5 tips for how to appreciate poetry, from NPR&#039;s Life Kit podcast.
Halisia Hubbard/NPR

A great poem can be there for you — just like other works of art you hold dear. It can help you process sadness, anger or fear. Or make you feel happy or excited. Franny Choi, an educator and co-host of the poetry podcast VS, says some poems make her want to "get out of my chair and shout it from the rooftops."

But if you haven't flexed your poetry muscle in a while, those feelings might be a little hard to tap into. For National Poetry Month, which takes place in April, here are five tips to help you meaningfully connect to a poem.

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

The way poetry is taught in school can be a barrier to entry. "People are taught that the way to engage with a poem is by trying to understand it, master it and write an essay about it," says Choi. "That keeps us from developing personal relationships with poetry."

So rest easy as you read a poem — there's no quiz at the end!

2. Don't worry about 'getting it'

People often put pressure on themselves to crack a poem, unlock its meaning or figure out what the poet was trying to say. Don't do it, says Harryette Mullen, a poet and professor of English at University of California, Los Angeles.

Instead, ask yourself some questions to get at what you think of the poem.

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

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

3. Read it out loud

"Poetry was an oral art form before anything else," says Choi. "And a lot of information can be gained from reading poems out loud."

As an exercise, try reading a poem aloud a few different ways:

  • Like you're savoring every word and every syllable
  • Like you're explaining something really difficult to someone else

It may help further your understanding of the poem.

4. Visualize the poem

A poem might offer visual imagery — or may not. If not, go ahead and fill them in with your imagination.

Mullen says to think of the poem like a movie or a play and you're the director. "What colors would you use? 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 illuminate whatever it is you seem to be getting out of the poem. If you need help, Choi suggests doodling images that stick out as you read the poem. That might help you find a common theme or 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, keep looking — there's something out there for you. Check out this starter playlist of poetry on YouTube; Write About Now's Instagram account, which features poetry from around the world; or poetry in The Paris Review, a quarterly literary magazine, to get you going.

Or better yet, 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 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.


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.