Rules for Reading Poetry

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Always assume it’s a speaker and not the writer talking. It's a bit of a pet peeve; walking into a class and everyone thinks that Ye Olden Poem is the literal perspective of Ye Olden Poet. Sometimes it is, of course. But often, like any writing, it is a side step into another role. Escapism isn’t reserved for television.


Pay attention to the line breaks. The stutter stop of a hanging word can make a poem feel like the precipice of a rollercoaster, that moment right before you whoosh straight down. Or, on the other hand, it can layer in meanings via the line, via the sentence, via the way they’ve been separated or squished together too tightly into a bed with each other in winter.


Show don’t tell—people hate to listen, so why make them listen to you talk on and on about the way something feels when you can just make them feel it? On the other hand, I think listening is important, and not all things are felt when you describe the texture of a gritty apple or how the top of a hot stove feels against your hand.


Feel the way the words taste in your mouth. Roll them around the way people say you are supposed to do with wine or brandy or some alcohol that I can’t remember right now. Can you taste the hints of chocolate or the age of the barrel?


Pay attention: there might be a Volta. That gorgeous turn at the end of a poem, best known in Shakespearean sonnets, where the writer has somehow turned the whole poem on its end, and your eyes suddenly find themselves racing to the top again stumbling over lines. Quilting together two different meanings, parsing through the layers. Finding the lies that give it promethean life, and suddenly a song you forgot rings in your ears for a moment, but only that one line. You’re still humming it a day later.