How to Read and Write Poetry

This article was written by Chris Ciolli.

Too many readers (and writers) view poetry as a mystery, an oddity to be kept in a curio behind a locked glass door. We might look at it and think it’s pretty, but we’re loath to take it out, trace its shape with careful hands to try to figure out how it’s put together, and perhaps, how we can create something similar.

This is silly, because poetry has a lot to offer to readers and writers, even those writers (likely the majority) that have no serious goal of scraping by as full-time poets. Comprehending words on the condensed, concentrated level that poetry demands helps readers and writers become more careful in their craft. And yes, reading, not just writing, is a craft. Reading is an art, that when performed correctly makes great works of literature, poetry and prose alike, come to life.

Since April is national poetry month, why not take a break from your regular reading habits and take some time to hone your poetry reading and writing skills?

Reading Poetry

A common misconception is that because poetry is short, it’s fast reading. Nothing could be further from the truth. To get a good idea of a poem’s meaning and construction, multiple readings are always required. Rare is the reader that “gets” a poem on the first reading, and the best poems unfold like flowers, revealing layers of meaning over multiple readings. What works best for me is first reading the poem quickly and silently to get a general feeling of what it’s about, or what emotions or images it conveys. Then I read it aloud, so that I can hear how it sounds outside my head. Sounds are as important in poetry as they are in music. After I read it aloud, I read it sentence by sentence (if it has punctuation) and then a second time line break by line break, to see how the poet is playing with phrasing and multiple meanings. Some readers prefer to read poems aloud first, and silently later; the order of your readers isn’t as important as reading the poem more than once.

After each reading, record your impressions of word and sound repetitions, line breaks that change the meanings of sentences, the style, speaker/voice, and any overall theme you perceive. Scribble notes about how the poem makes you feel, and what you especially enjoy or despise. Don’t expect to understand everything in a first sitting, or ever. Poetry is about subtleties, the implied as opposed to the overt, and to truly enjoy it, ambiguity, and a sense of mystery must be embraced as part of the process. In my experience, sometimes the best tactic is spending half an hour or so with a poem for a thorough first reading, and coming back to it the next day with fresh eyes.

Writing Poetry

Writing poetry, just like writing anything else, tends to be infinitely improved by reading poetry. If you read poetry often, and with an aim to learn about how and why a poem works (or even why it doesn’t) you will find yourself writing better poetry. But how to start writing poetry? Writing poetry is like so many “creative” activities, about a mindset: It’s about seeing stories to tell, scenes and sounds to describe, interest and beauty all around you, not just in historic happenings, but also in seemingly unimportant daily events. Which is not to say you can’t write an epic poem about the Trojan War (although who wants to compete with Homer, anyway?), but rather that in poetry the “devil’s in the details.” Besides which, for poets that have an interest in getting published in literary journals, modern poems are most often about a specific image or experience, and don’t usually extend longer than a page.Getting started can be difficult, as so many writers feel ridiculous trying to write poems. Break through any mental barriers to working on your poetry with daily timed exercises. Sites like Poets & Writers offer weekly poetry-writing prompts or you can use some of the exercises included below.

Poetry-writing Exercises

  1. Describe a memory as vividly as you can in a page or less.
  2. Become a loved one, and try to communicate a message or a memory in his or her voice.
  3. Write a free-association poem starting with a favorite quote. Let one image or idea connect to another and another, for at least half an hour.
  4. Compose 5 haikus in an hour or less about a theme or experience.
  5. Show the reader a specific place in 100 words or less.
  6. Make the reader feel what you feel, right now, in 50 words or less.
  7. Think about 5 of your favorite words. Build a 5 stanza poem around them, including one of the words in each stanza.
  8. Meet up with a friend and take turns writing two lines each in a continuation poem. This can also be done via email with each writer writing a stanza and sending it along.
  9. Listen to your favorite song on repeat. Try to write new words to fit the music.
  10. Write about a favorite painting. But go beyond the painting. What can you smell, hear, and taste?

A final note: Poems, like all writing, should be left alone for a few days, or a week, if possible before you start revising or playing with them further. Whenever possible, give the words time to breath and settle down before you go rearranging them at will.

Further References for Reading and Writing Poetry:

Online:

Oprah.com: 12 Ways to Write a Poem

Oprah.com: How to Write a Poem: Maya Angelou’s Advice

The Guardian: How to Write Poetry: Poet Wendy Cope Explains What Makes a Really Superb Poem

Poets.org: How to Read a Poem

BillMoyers.com: Adrienne Rich on What Poetry Makes Possible (Video)

HaikuWorld.org: Ten Tips for Writing Haiku

Writer’s Relief: The Language of Musicality in Poetry: Vocabulary for Poets 

Books:

The Discovery of Poetry: A Field Guide to Reading and Writing Poems by Frances Mayes

Ordinary Genius: A Guide for the Poet Within by Kim Addonizio–”Poetry is not a means to an end, but a continuing engagement with being alive”.

Poemcrazy: Freeing Your Life with Words by Susan G. Woolridge

The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets by Ted Kooser

==========

Chris Ciolli is a Barcelona-based writer and a translator. She’s an unashamed book and coffee addict that travels every chance she gets. She also spends a lot of time playing with kitchen tools and art supplies. Read about her travels at MidwesternerAbroad.com, and check out her art at TriflesandQuirks.com.

Photo: Some rights reserved by summonedbyfells.

4 Replies to “How to Read and Write Poetry”

  1. Thanks so much for this post today! I was just reading “A Writer’s Bucket List” and it talked about writing poetry, which I haven’t done since I was in school. I also just realized I have been behind in reading these posts.

  2. Well said, Chris. Poetry has become “an oddity”, or worse, something to be feared. I admit, I’m scared of modern poetry — my reading probably stopped with Auden and Cummings. But your article urges one to go back and read poetry again.
    Anjali

    1. Thanks for reading, Anjali, I appreciate it! If you want to get back into poetry, can I recommend Anne Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband. Great stuff. And you can never go wrong going back and reading more Frost, or Plath.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *