How to Read Poetry


What is poetry?

Terry Eagleton’s answer:

“a poem is a fictional, verbally inventive moral statement in which it is the author, rather than the printer or word processor, who decides where the line should end.”

  • Poems are moral statements … “not because they launch stringent judgements according to some code, but because they deal in human values, meanings and purposes.”
  • Poetry is verbally inventive because it contains language that draws attention to itself and which is focused upon itself. It is heightened, enriched, intensified speech. It works by association, compression quick leaps in logic.
  • Ambiguity is built into poems. They are pieces of writing which never have just one meaning.

What is a poem? Some more answers:

  • A literary work in which special intensity is given to the expression of feelings and ideas by the use of distinctive style and rhythm.
  • An art form in which human language is used for its aesthetic qualities in addition to, or instead of, its notional and semantic content.
  • Elevated thought or feeling in metrical or rhythmical form.

Basic Steps in Reading a Poem

1. Read poem through at least twice and look for the main idea or feeling that the poet is conveying.

What does the poem make you think of?

What you feel when you read or hear it?

What is its tone? What terms does the poet used to provoke these reactions in you? Are there any oppositions present?

Briefly sum up the poem.

2. After reading the poem decide how the main idea feeling is given shape in the poem by the combination of words and with them that the poet has chosen to use.

Consider things like the use of syntax, meter, imagery, oppositions, and other resources of language such as alliteration, pun, symbol, metaphor and enjambment.

3. See if you can find two or three lines that clinch your sense of the poem’s main idea or feeling.


What a poem says, what it means and is about. Poetry conveys or communicates particular kinds of information through its use of language and imagery even if this meaning is elusive and obscure.


Form refers to how a poem says what it does. Sometimes the form supports the content but sometimes there may be a creative disjunction between them.


Poetry always has a context, which influences both its content and its form. Some schools of literary theory are based primarily on the way that aspects of the social, political and social context are mediated in literature.


A poem is a material thing, an object of a particular sort.

The physical and non-conceptual elements of a poem can be referred to as its form.

We have to ask questions about how a poem works and achieves its effects:

What does the poem make us see, hear, smell, imagine and think when we read or listen to it?

What moods, experiences, thoughts and feelings does it elicit and how?

How would the effect of part of a poem would be different if the poem were altered in some way?

Four components of form:

  • Structure
  • Rhythm
  • Texture
  • Imagery


The structure of the poem concerns its shape and the way that it has been put together or organised

Questions to ask:

  • What does the poem look like on the page?
  • How much of the page is blank and how much is filled in with letters?
  • Are the lines short or long?
  • What sort of spaces separate them?
  • What can be said about the lineation of the poem, the organisation of its lines?



  • Is the poem divided into stanzas?
  • Do these stanzas rhyme? – If they do they can be called verses instead.
  • How many stanzas are there in the poem and what is their relationship to one another?


How are the phrases of the poem organised and what is the connection and relationship between them?

Phrase: The basic unit of meaning in a poem, as in other forms of speech and writing.

How are the phrases grouped and clustered in the poem? Is there a main clause with lots of subordinate clauses as in the Prelude? Or are there a lot of phrases following each other in a related sequence?

Parallel clauses (parataxis) tend to have equal force while nested clauses (hypotaxis) will often be associated with a more meditative or reflective process.

Parataxis: The placing of clauses or phrases one after another without coordinating or subordinating connectives.

Paratactic language employs short, simple sentences and does not use many connecting words.

Young children use paratactic language – “I went to the beach. I ate an ice cream. The dog chased the ball. I made a sand castle.”

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:/Petals, on a wet, black bough(Ezra Pound, “In a Station of the Metro”).

It is left to the reader to make the connection between the two phrases.

Hypotaxis: the clauses and phrases are arranged in a hierarchical or unequal relationship with each other, as in many passages in The Prelude:

I believe

That there are spirits, which, when they would form

A favoured being, from his very dawn [1.70]

Of infancy do open out the clouds

As at the touch of lightning, seeking him

With gentle visitation; quiet Powers!

Retired and seldom recognized, yet kind,

And to the very meanest not unknown;

With me, though rarely, in my early days

They communed: others too there are who use,

Yet haply aiming at the self-same end,

Severer interventions, ministry

More palpable, and of their school was I.


Punctuation might be used to join phrases and lines together or to separate them.

A line of poetry might be end stopped or it might run on. Caesura: There might also be a strong pause in the middle of a line of verse.

The main point is to consider where the pauses go and how forceful they are.

Enjambment (a run on line, when the sense continues across a line break):

Oh, when I have hung

Above the raven’s nest, by knots of grass

Structure and genre

  • The way that a poem is structured will identify it as belonging to a specific poetic genre.
  •  This will set up different expectations about the poem. We’d expect something different from a sonnet and an epic.

The poet might fulfil the expectation that is associated with the use of a certain genre or, as many of the Romantics did, experiment with the form of a genre and use it in new ways or even combine genres so as to achieve new effects, as Wordsworth and Coleridge do in The Lyrical Ballads.


Rhythm and metre

Rhythm: the variable pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables

Metre: A regular kind of poetic sound pattern

How do the words and phrases sound?

Where do the stresses fall?

The rhythms of the English language most naturally give rise to tetrameter or pentameters, lines of four or five stresses.

The most usual pattern is iambic, an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one, or a trochee, a stress followed by an unstressed syllable.

  • You need to get a feel for the basic rhythm of a poem so that you can identify and talk about the variations and departures from it.
  • Poets use rhythmic variations to achieve particulars effects. They might, for example, use two stresses, a spondee, for emphasis or to slow the rhythm down.
  •  The rhythm of a poem is also connected to pace. Some poems move slowly, some hurtle frenetically forward. Pace has a lot to do with the sound patterning, the syntax, the use of punctuation and whether the line is end stopped or runs on.

Rhyme: when words sound the same.

“a unity of identity and difference

  • Rhyme scheme: the pattern of rhymed line-endings in a poem. These are described using letters, e.g. abab.
  • End rhyme usually falls at the end of a line.
  • Perfect rhyme occurs when the syllables and consonants match. example crowing and flowing or glitter and twitter.
  • Internal rhyme occurs within the lines: “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary.
  • An absolute or identical rhyme involves the use of exactly the same word.
  • Off rhyme occurs when the vowel sound is a little different (“Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests; snug as a gun” – Seamus Heaney, “Digging”)
  • Apparent rhyme (para-rhyme) when the consonants are the same but the vowels are not as in “dig” and “dog”. These sorts of rhyme produce different kinds of effects, some quite eerie and disjunctive

Alliteration, assonance and consonance

a range of sound patterning that occurs in almost all poems

  •  Alliteration: The repetition of an initial consonant sound (Glory be to God for dappled things.”/ Landscapes plotted and pieced-fold, fallow and plough)
  • Assonance: the repetition of vowel-sounds within non-rhyming words (mellow wedding bells)
  • Consonance: the repetition of final consonant sounds (eg. first and last)

Remember, technical terms are not important. The important thing is to be aware of the sound patterns in a poem and the effects they produce and how these are related to mood, tone and meaning.



  • works on the perceptual and sensory level
  •  always comes in bundles and patterns
  • can be very intense and dense or not
  • can be evenly or unevenly distributed in a poem
  •  often consists of tropes or figures of speech


  • a literary device in which words are used in a non-literal way; a figurative use of language

“The streets were a furnace, the sun an executioner.”

  • metaphor and metonymy are commonly used tropes


  • is the representation of a thing by another thing that resembles it
  • forms an imaginative link between one domain of signs and another
  • it insists on affinities between elements which we also acknowledge to be different
  • the more attention we pay to the similarity between the elements, the greater their differences often become



“Between the lower east side tenements

the sky is a snotty handkerchief.”


  • involves a relationship within one domain of signs. This relationship can be temporal or spatial
  • links elements in the contiguous way, example bird and sky

It is a rhetorical strategy that describes something indirectly by referring to things around it. A person’s clothes may be described, for example, as a way of characterising the person

  • it works by associating meanings within the same plane while metaphor works by transposing qualities from one plane of reality to another

The day is come when I again repose

Here, under this dark sycamore, and view

These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,

Which at this season, with their unripe fruits,

Are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves

‘Mid groves and copses. Once again I see

These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines

Of sportive wood run wild: these pastoral farms,

Green to the very door; and wreaths of smoke

Sent up, in silence, from among the trees!