How to Read Poems Properly


Most of my friends are poets. I’ll rephrase this because it sounds terribly pretentious. If you did a kind of job census on the people who I spend most of my time with I’m pretty sure I’d end up with more poetry writing associates than teachers, lawyers, doctors etc. Another way of saying ‘most of my friends are poets’ is, ‘most of my friends are permanently broke.’


I spend a lot of time at poetry readings. I spend a lot of time on the edge of discussions about Louis MacNeice, and various types of sonnets, and whether this poet or that poet deserves to win a prize for their poems about fish/history/B list celebrities, and if it’s acceptable to write poems sideways so they stretch across two whole pages and you have to turn the book sideways to read them; also how to maintain the fine balance between black clothing and tweed clothing when reading your poems out loud in a public place. Most of the time I don’t really understand what I’m listening to but there is often free wine at these gatherings and the poets are mostly very kind and pleasant individuals so I don’t mind being a little bit lost in their company. Sometimes there is another prose writer present and we huddle together for solidarity saying things like “Jonathan Franzen” and “how many thousand words did you write today?” very loudly so the poets can tell that we are different from them and might even write television screenplays in the future.

The poets, for the most part, (and I have to make some exceptions here), do not read prose. They are wary of it, or perhaps do not know where to start. This is ok. I have a similar attitude when it comes to shellfish. This year I decided that I should set an example for the poets by reading ten volumes, (Collections? Books? Annals?), of contemporary poetry in order to show the poets that it is not so very scary to venture out there into a different literary genre. Below is the list of books which the poets decided I should read. This list was not without controversy. It was drafted and passed round the Sunflower during a Lifeboat reading in order to gain the approval of all the poets present, (the collective noun for a group of poets is a rhyme, an iamb or an obscurity,[really, an obscurity!]). It returned to me dog-eared and annotated by several different hands: “not enough American poets,” “I have no idea who this poet is,” “tendency to overdo the classical references.”I was not to be dissuaded, even by the classical references. This is what we have Wikipedia for after all.


I read everything on the list. Some of it was life-changing and made me cry. Some of it was the reading equivalent of sucking paperclips, (nb. any poetry collection with an Andy Warhol style pop art cover is not to be trusted). I read twelve more poetry collections. That’s twenty two individual books of poems in total. This is pretty good going for a person who hasn’t seriously read poetry since Yeats at undergrad and also completely missed the fact that Autumn Journal rhymes.

In the process of this experiment I have learnt some things about how to read poems properly. The following points may be useful to other people who have too many poets in their life and wish to build up a stockpile of things to say at cultivated dinner parties, (in fairness most poets I know don’t have cultivated dinner parties. They are too poor and are more likely to be found in Boojum or eating chickpea curry off a plate on their knees), or people who have become stuck in a literary rut of their own making reading endless quirky, short story collections and paperback novels by male American writers of the early twentieth century. I hope you will find it useful and maybe read some poems yourself. The good thing about poems is that some are extremely short so if you are a little intimidated you can start with one which is only two lines long and build up to The Wasteland (which is considerably longer than two lines), over a number of weeks. Good luck to you.


How to Read Poems Properly:

  1. Do not read poetry without a drink in your hand. Coffee is acceptable. Wine is much better. A slight muddliness in your brain may well help you to appreciate the poem more. Reading poetry is a little like trying to see the boat in a magic eye picture; you need to let yourself get a little out of focus to see the point of it.
  2. Underline bits you like. Do not underline too much or you will appear to have no discernment. Approximately one in every eight to ten lines is probably sufficient.
  3. Do not read poetry as fast as you read novels. My novel rate is 100 pages per hour. This would make the average poetry collection last around twenty five minutes. This is too fast. Spend at least four minutes looking at each page then make a small satisfied noise as if you have just eaten a particularly delicious bit of delicious food, then turn to the next poem. Repeat until there are no poems left. For me this process was comparable to looking at art in a gallery and trying to seem like I understood why I should be looking at it.
  4. Do not think about how much poems cost. The average poetry collection seems to be about £10 for sixty poems of around 150 words each. The average novel is around £8 for about 70,000 words. If you spend too long thinking about this you will realise that novels are much better value for money than poems. This is not the point of poetry. You should remind yourself that Pot Noodles are extremely cheap but they taste like shite and you will still be hungry fifteen minutes after you have eaten one.
  5. If you read poems by Anne Carson you are reading the right poems.
  6. Some poems are written in odd shapes, (such as Christmas trees and houses and broken up ladders). Despite what you were taught in school you should not assume that a space between words or lines automatically indicates the point at which you are meant to take a breath whilst reading a poem. If you do this with some poems you will sound like you are having an asthma attack.
  7. Not all poems rhyme. Some do. You should not base the worth of a poem on whether it rhymes or not. Some poems rhyme sneakily in the middle of a line or in a very odd place. If you spot one of these stealth rhymes you should feel extremely pleased with yourself. You are now a semi-proficient reader of poems. Underline this bit.
  8. If there is an idea or an image which sticks in your mind and will not leave you be, even hours after reading the poem then this is the point of the poem for you. It may not be the actual point of the poem but that is ok. Ignore what they say in The Guardian or on Radio 4. The poem is there for you as much as anyone else who reads it even if they are extremely accomplished poets..
  9. Do not be put off by the covers of poetry collections. Some poetry collections look like the reproduction paintings found in nursing home dining rooms, but are actually very, very good. It is usually different for novels. It is perfectly acceptable to judge a novel by its cover.
  10. A lot of poems are about nature and animals. This is hard if you don’t like nature or animals.
  11. If you get stuck when talking about poetry refer back to Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal. Everyone in the world agrees that it is brilliant. It is, in this sense, very similar to Fight Club.



2 thoughts on “How to Read Poems Properly

  1. Pingback: How to Read Poems Properly | Celfypridd

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