How to Read Poetry

“I don’t understand poetry.”

It’s a common enough complaint that an aspiring poet gets used to hearing, even from book-lovers. Many people can’t- or at least say they can’t- read poetry. Even more people can’t relate to poems. Whatever the reason- haunting memories of school teachers, a more comfortable relationship with prose, an inability to find beauty in the twists and turns of words- poetry remains one of the most sequestered sections of Literature.

I want to argue that this is not poetry’s fault, that we all have our own ways of expression, and poetry’s happens to be esoteric enough to set it far apart. But let’s face it: poetry is difficult to read. By nature, it is a highly stylised form of articulation. It often expresses things so deeply personal that they can be difficult to access for those not in the know.

As an aspiring poet, I consider it my duty to not only bring people to poetry, but bring poetry to them. So here’s a handy ten-step guide to becoming the perfect reader of poetry for all you poem-sceptics out there:

(1) Read the title.

Start at the top, then find your way to the bottom with a flop. But don’t do that last part just yet, my friend. There’s a long way to go before the ditty ends. Once you’ve read the title, close your eyes and take a breath. Think about the writer’s well-woven net.


What is the poet trying to say? Is he simply giving the gist away  (‘Leisure’ by W H Davies)? Is he playing a trick of letters with you (‘My Last Duchess’ by Robert Browning)? Is he sharing memories better with you (‘Full Moon and Little Frieda’ by Ted Hughes)? Does the title admittedly confuse you somewhat  (‘I am vertical’ by Sylvia Plath)? Does it make you fear the oncoming jots (‘Casualty’ by Seamus Heaney)? Is it deceptive in some sneaky subtle way (‘The Tiger’ by William Blake) or is it laughing at the mishaps of the poet’s day (Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’)?

The thoughts ring a bell; we now know for sure: only the poem can tell.

(2) Read the first line.

It’s a make-or-break moment; the suspense is fine. Does it align with how you thought it would be? Has it gone off on a free-wheeling spree? Do you like this initial address? It’s not too hard: it’s been dressed to impress!


(3) Read the rest of the poem, together, in a rush.

Let the feelings your anxieties hush. Let the images fill your brain. Let the words drown every other lane. Submerge yourself in the soul-filling rain.


(4) Swim to the depths, the very bottom of the lake.

There a writer sits, scribbling, awake. They will glance at you, blink, then look right away. Do not attempt to break their sway.


(5) Walk around. There is a world.

It builds and it falls. Towns crush, machines sing,  guardians call, clocks adjust gear and animals rush by, so does the bright clink of our daily life. Don’t let the strangeness fill you with dread. You are now seeing the world as the poet in their head.


(6) You will find pools of living, life-giving words, building and smashing and coiling inward.

These are the poems they penned with their art. Some will be near, some further apart. One will be close enough to cast their true spell. You have now reached the core of your poem’s inner well.

(7) See how the words stack, merge and bridge.

They playfully whirl and heartlessly scourge. Let them move through you in breathless release. Feel all the beauty that no one else sees.


(8) Pause over here, then take a deep breath.

Inhale: all of it, the words and the world. Watch all of it turn and seep and swirl. Let it settle deep into the back of your brain. Let it sink in to take root again.


(9) Water the plant with the love it has brought.

Let the Spring flower in the realm of your thoughts. See it grow into a blooming seedling . Has the word-mass shown its hidden meaning?


(10) Know that now, the poem is you.

Heart and lung and nerve and sinew. The meaning of the poem is embedded in your mind. Welcome, new reader, and join our kind.


Physicist Paul Dirac said, “The aim of poetry is to state simple things in an incomprehensible way.”

I wouldn’t agree, and nor, I suspect, will any other poet. In fact, we would state the exact opposite. The business of life is far too complicated; it is richer and more vibrant than objective reality, and takes place entirely within ourselves. Poetry is an attempt to bring this life down to the level of words. Most often, we don’t succeed, but when we do- boy, do we create amazing things.

I hope this post helps the non-poetry- lovers to navigate poems!

Don’t believe me?

Look through the post again. I think you know that you already did.

This is the original draft of a poem/blog post I wrote for the blog of Jaipur Literature Festival. You can find that version here. While you’re there, why not check out some of the other articles I wrote, covering panels by, to name only two, Shashi Tharoor and Mallika Dua? They are all available here.

Which is your favourite poem? Do you find poetry difficult to read?

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