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'

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hey, everybody. Before we start today's show, I want to say here at LIFE KIT, we know this is a really difficult time for everyone. Things are uncertain and stressful. But we're grateful to be able to bring you the tools you need to navigate life right now. One of the reasons we're able to bring you tips about money, family and health during this time is because of our listener donations. So please, if you're able to, give what you can to your local NPR station today. Head to donate.npr.org/life to get you started.


JAMIE VESPIO: Hi, LIFE KIT. My name is Jamie Vespio (ph). And I'm from Lexington, Ky.

MEGHAN KEANE, BYLINE: Jamie has a good reminder for all of us.

VESPIO: During this time, I've noticed that I've been kind of twiddling my thumbs a lot, trying to figure out how to pass the time. And unfortunately, that's led to a lot of screen time. So one thing that I've been doing to limit my use of screen time, particularly around social media, has been setting time limits on my phone. And you can do that super easily if you have an iPhone by going to your settings and then screen time and clicking on app limits.

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Hey. I'm Andrew Limbong, arts reporter at NPR. And this is NPR's LIFE KIT.


LIMBONG: There's an image I had of poetry as a kid. The people that read it, that wrote it, that liked it - they played bongos, wore berets, kept their sunglasses on indoors. If you've ever seen that old Nickelodeon TV show "Doug," I'm thinking basically of the sister Judy.


BECCA LISH: (As Judy) My soul throbs. I am your washing machine.

LIMBONG: Then I got a little older, and that image became a little stuffier - fewer bongos, more Shakespearean sonnets and teachers who loved giving me Cs. Different but still unappealing, which is a shame because poetry's great. Poetry is useful. But poetry can sometimes seem more intimidating than it needs to be. So this episode of LIFE KIT is for all you poetry naysayers out there who maybe sort of vaguely like some poetry but never quite got a taste for it, for all you who think poetry isn't your thing or for all you who, if you're like me, read just enough of it to bump those Cs up to a B.


LIMBONG: Before we get into the tips, let's address a wider question here. Why even bother trying to appreciate poetry?


LIMBONG: Well, whatever you get out of a song you love or a book you cherish or a movie you can't stop thinking about, that feeling is available to you in the world of poetry. I asked one of our experts, Franny Choi, what makes a good poem?

FRANNY CHOI: It makes me want to get out of my chair and pace around the room (laughter). It makes me want to throw my hands up and show it to somebody or say it out loud or, you know, shout it from the rooftops.


CHOI: It's visceral to me. And I can't explain always what it is that gives me that feeling. It's just that when I have it, it's the only thing that matters.

LIMBONG: If you're a poetry skeptic, I don't know if we're going to get you to the level of it's the only thing that matters but maybe headed in that general direction. First things first, we talked to a bunch of experts - poetry writers, poetry performers, poetry professors - and the one big thing they all agreed on was this.

CHOI: Yeah, I think one of the biggest barriers to people being able to really appreciate poetry and see themselves in it is actually the way that it's taught in schools.

LIMBONG: That's Choi again. She's a poet and educator and co-host of the poetry podcast VS.

CHOI: 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. And I think that keeps us from really developing personal relationships to poetry.

LIMBONG: I feel like we all know that Robert Frost poem "Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening," right?


LIMBONG: It's the one that goes, (reading) the woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep and miles to go before I sleep.

The College Board, the folks behind standardized tests like the SATs, describes the poem as, quote, "a tidy, four-quatrain stanzaic structure, is written in iambic tetrameters and has a rhyme scheme that effectively knits together one stanza's sound and images and those of the next." That all might be true. But if you're not familiar with poetry or only barely interested in it at all, all that means nothing. So seeing as we're not in a classroom, our first takeaway is don't approach poetry like it's homework.

A poem isn't a math problem that needs to be solved. It's not a bit of history that you have to memorize. All that stuff about meter and form, if you like that stuff, that's great. If not, don't worry about it.

CHOI: What is the use of understanding everything that's working, you know, all of the literary devices in a poem, if, you know, the end result is that you are able to answer a reading comprehension question?

LIMBONG: So if reading comprehension questions are the wrong questions to ask, what are the right ones? Here's UCLA professor and poet Harryette Mullen.

HARRYETTE MULLEN: What kind of overall impression do you have of a poem after you've read it or heard it? Do you have an image in your mind? Do you have an idea? You know, is there a sort of declaration that the poem is making? Is the poem warning you about something? Is it urging you to do something or think something or feel something? So those kind of overall impressions I think most of us do get if we hear the poem or we read the poem. We are left with something.

LIMBONG: Whatever that something is, trust it. Start with that, which gets us to our second takeaway, don't worry about getting it. Mullen says one of the hardest things for people to do when trying to really appreciate poetry is to trust themselves.

MULLEN: People don't trust themselves because they're thinking in the back of their minds, no, there's a right answer, there's a correct answer. And I want to be sure that I'm not giving the wrong answer. But I think if people would just trust themselves more and their own feelings and actually read the poem - because you know what really happens is that people start to read a poem and the poem takes them on kind of a loop-de-loop ride. And then once they hit one of those loops, they think, oh, that's it, I'm done.

LIMBONG: A loop could be anything from an image coming out of left field, a weird word that doesn't seem like it fits, an historical reference you don't get immediately.

MULLEN: And they stop reading. And what they should do is continue reading. Think about it. Take a breath. And then read it again.

LIMBONG: Maybe read it again the next day. Or maybe give it a week or even a couple years? For a while, Mullen says she couldn't get her head around the work of William Blake. It didn't work for her in high school. It didn't work for her as an undergraduate. Recently, she gave it another shot, and then it clicked.

MULLEN: Sometimes we change, you know? And because we change, the poem is still the same, you know, the text is the same, usually (laughter), but we return to the poem as a different person and with a different understanding. That can happen.

LIMBONG: So if you're reading a poem and you're getting nothing out of it, take a minute and give it another shot. Or take a few minutes, a week, a month, whatever. And if it doesn't work for you, then it doesn't work for you. But if you think there might be something there for you, what can help you uncover a little more of that something is our third takeaway. Read it out loud.

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


LIMBONG: Many poems have got a rhythm to them, a sort of song-like melody. You just got to find it. But if you're having a hard time, Choi recommends to her students to not only read it out loud but read it out loud in a few different ways. First...

CHOI: As if they're savoring every word and every syllable and really trying out the shapes of the word in your mouth.

LIMBONG: And then read it...

CHOI: As if you're trying to explain something really difficult to somebody else.

LIMBONG: I asked Choi to give me an example of a line read two ways. She pulled out a random book from her bag and then read this sentence neutrally.

CHOI: The summer of 1950 was unusually hot. This is how survivors of the war remember it, regardless of what temperatures actually registered on the thermometer.

LIMBONG: OK, now here's that sentence with, as Choi puts it, every syllable savored.

CHOI: This is how survivors of the war remember it, regardless of what temperatures actually registered on the thermometer.

LIMBONG: You really hear the Rs and the vowels. The word thermometer all of a sudden sounds round? Here's that same line read differently, like explaining something really difficult.

CHOI: This is how survivors of the war remember it, regardless of what temperatures actually registered on the thermometer.

LIMBONG: This, to me, sounds a little colder, a little more flippant, maybe? Either way, you're trying to find the groove of a poem.

CHOI: Certain poets are sort of celebrating the clanging of sounds against each other. And other poets are celebrating and pointing you towards syntax.

LIMBONG: Changing the way you're reading something can change the direction of your thinking. It can change the picture in your head, which is our fourth takeaway. Visualize the poem. A poem might offer you a stack of images, but there's bound to be gaps to fill. Who or what is talking? What are they talking to? What time of day is it? Harryette Mullen says think of the poem like a movie or a play, and you're the director.

MULLEN: What colors would you use? What kind of setting would there be? If there's light, what kind of light? Would it be harsh light? Would it be twilight? Would it be dusk? Can you imagine the speaker? Does the speaker seem to be male or female or both or neither or indeterminate? What might the speaker be wearing?

LIMBONG: You get the idea. To get a sense of how this works, I asked Mullen if I could read a poem of hers back to her and describe what I was seeing.

MULLEN: OK, yes.

LIMBONG: So it's called "Still Waiting." And then it says for Alison Saar. (Reading) Please approach with care these figures in black. Regard with care the weight they bear, the scars that mark their hearts. Do you think you can handle these bodies of graphite and coal dust? This color might rub off. A drop of this red liquid could stain your skin. This black powder could blow you sky high. No ordinary pigments blacken our blues. Would you mop the floor with this bucket of blood? Would you rinse your soiled laundry in this basement of tears? Would you suckle hot milk from this cracked vessel? Would you be baptized in this fountain of funky sweat? Please approach with care these bodies still waiting to be touched. We invite you to come closer. We permit you to touch and be touched. We hope you will engage with care.

MULLEN: Mmm hmm. Nicely done.

LIMBONG: (Laughter) Oh, I was very nervous.

This is the first time I'd ever read a poet's poem back to them. And it's weird. But in the spirit of no wrong answers, here's what I envisioned.

It sounds like a speech, you know? It sounds, like, either, like, a politician or a pastor or somebody at, like, a school assembly talking at, like, a podium. For some reason, I'm imagining them - and I'm guessing it's because of, like, the talk about, like, the graphite and dust - but in, like, coveralls almost with, like, a - like, they'd just come from, like, working in, like, an auto body shop or, like, a factory or something like that.

I keep going like this for a bit. But it doesn't matter what I'm seeing. It matters what you're seeing.

MULLEN: You know, this is so wonderful because when I write something, I know what I'm thinking when I'm writing it. And what is so interesting to me and what I'm always curious about is, how does the reader experience that? Because, obviously, it's going to be different because the reader was not right with me when I wrote it. And, you know, even if I tell you exactly what I thought and where I was and all of that, it's still going to be a different poem for you, for any reader.

LIMBONG: She says she was inspired to write this poem by walking through an exhibit of a sculptor named Alison Saar, whose work touches on black identity and labor.

MULLEN: In the literal way, I was simply walking through the gallery and experiencing these figures, these sculptures. Some of them literally had a black kind of powdery substance on their surface. And in the literal gallery there was a sign that said, approach with care or, you know, be careful around these sculptures because they have this black, powdery substance on them that could rub off on you.

LIMBONG: My interpretation was somehow close and not close at all. And that's OK. It's your mind picture that you're painting, so it's up to you what you visualize. It's also up to you what you're reading, which is our fifth and final bit of advice. Read a bunch of poetry. At the top of the episode, I mentioned that people have this image in their mind of what poetry is, that it's Shakespeare or whatever else they read in seventh grade. But it's a whole lot bigger than that. If you come across something you don't like or doesn't click, that's cool. Maybe that poem sucks or just isn't for you right now. Keep looking. There's bound to be something that speaks to you. Or better yet, when you can, find a local poetry reading.


LIMBONG: Shihan Van Clief and Dante Basco are co-founders of Da Poetry Lounge in Los Angeles. Here's Basco.

DANTE BASCO: People have been coming to our poetry venue, Da Poetry Lounge, for over 20 years religiously every Tuesday. It's like church.

LIMBONG: Both amateurs and professionals get on stage and read their work. And it's all different types of poetry. Some of it leans towards slam poetry. Some of it is more formal. Some of it has music behind it. Sometimes, it's personal. Sometimes, it's sad. Sometimes, it's funny. Van Clief and Basco say go out and find poetry you like, whatever it is, wherever it is. You don't need to muscle your way through some award-winning collection if what you're in the mood for right now is closer to Dr. Seuss. Here's Shihan Van Clief.

SHIHAN VAN CLIEF: I sat on pop and hop on pop and fox in box and blah, blah, blah. There's just as much value in that because it gives somebody a stepping stone. It introduces them to something in a way that they can digest quicker than going here, take this and try and figure it out.

LIMBONG: To go back to the school thing for a second, all of our experts said that the canon, the classics they give you to read in class - they're great. But they also tend to be older, whiter, straighter and maler and maybe don't speak to you if you're less old, less white, less straight or less male. Here's Dante again.

BASCO: It's like, read "Beowulf." Well, I don't want to read "Beowulf." You know what I'm saying? It's like that kind of thing. You're like, I don't know, go back and see those stories later on - you're like, oh, there's a reason why they're great. I say all that because I wasn't trying to hear poetry either - you know what I'm saying? - if it wasn't for me to, like, follow some girls into a spot, like, OK, what is this?

LIMBONG: Like I sort of alluded to at the top of the episode, when it comes to poetry, I faked it for a long time. I got pretty good at BSing my way through essays about poetry in high school and college. But it wasn't until I was out of school, a few years later, there was a poetry reading at a music venue a few blocks away from my apartment. I went and watched and listened for a bit. And then something clicked for me there. It was an idea that all sorts of people are writing poetry. The stereotypes of poetry people I had in my head growing up turned out to be just that - stereotypes. Don't get me wrong - not all of it was good. Some of it was great. Some of it was awful. But I'd finally relaxed a bit and trusted my ears and my gut enough to let me know the difference.

There's a big pool of poetry out there available from your library. Or there are dedicated poetry channels on YouTube and Instagram. There are podcasts and print publications. If you need help navigating, we've got you. There's a list of recommendations on the website. There's the podcast The Slowdown from our buddies at American Public Media. Both Franny Choi and Harryette Mullen have got poetry collections you can check out, not to mention Franny's podcast she co-hosts, VS. So have fun with it. Try out different styles and forms and writers and mediums, and you'll find something that works for you.

MULLEN: If you say, well, I don't like poetry, it's, like, to me that's like saying I don't like food. You just - you know, you have to find the food that is good for you that you enjoy.


LIMBONG: So to recap, one, forget what you learned about poetry in school. Two, don't worry about getting it or figuring out what it means. Three, read it out loud. Read it out loud a few times, a couple different ways. Four, visualize. Picture the images in your head and fill in the blanks. And five, go out and take in more poetry. When you can, head to your local poetry reading at libraries or bookstores or clubs. Find some stuff online. Don't feel beholden to whatever you think makes quote, unquote, "good poetry." You'll find something that you like. And as always, here's a completely random tip, this time from listener Mary Kerlin.

MARY KERLIN: My life hack is when you are proofreading something for any reason - a letter, an article - it helps to read it out loud. Or if you're somewhere in public and you don't want to read it out loud, you just kind of move your lips (laughter).

LIMBONG: See. Reading out loud helps in a lot of situations.

If you've got a good tip, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us at lifekit@npr.org. For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. We've got one on how to read more, one on how to add more creativity to your life and lots more. This episode was produced by Andee Tagle. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. Beth Donovan is the senior editor. Our digital editor is Beck Harlan. And our product coordinator is Clare Schneider. I'm Andrew Limbong. Thanks for listening.

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