Reading Poetry: Questions & Directions

by William Patrick


  1. Read the poem at least three times. Each time through will show you something new about the poem. Look for something you like about the poem. If we are readers and writers in a workshop, the information we provide to another writer should be encouraging and helpful.
  1. Ask yourself what voice (point of view) the poem uses. Is the poet speaking directly, or using a persona?  To whom is the poet speaking?  When you know who is speaking, identify what tone they are using, and see how the language used in the poem contributes to or detracts from that tone.
  1. Check to see if the poem uses a rhyme scheme and/or an identifiable, consistent form or meter. Does it create its own new form? Try to determine how the poem’s construction expresses or opposes its content.
  1. Locate the poem’s images. Is the poet creating interesting, concrete word pictures?Does the poet make you see, taste, feel, smell and hear what he or she is talking about, or does the poem rely on abstract language?
  1. Is there a central idea, story, image, or emotion that runs through the poem? What emotions does the poem awaken in you?
  1. Find the figurative language (similes, metaphors, personifications, symbols) in the poem. Do they seem original and unexpected? Do the comparisons and connections deepen, expand, and energize the poem?
  1. Check for distracting cliches. Examine whatever hackneyed language, ideas, and archaic diction you find in the poem, and ask yourself if the poet intended to use them, and why. Is the poem recycling experience or making something new?
  1. Think about how the poet uses consonant and vowel sounds in the poem (alliteration, assonance, consonance, rhyme), and ask yourself if these sounds help the poem come alive for you. Do the sounds mirror the content of the poem?
  1. Look at the poem’s lines — where are they broken; where are they end-stopped; where do they enjamb (run over to the next line)? Do the line choices seem arbitrary or intentional? How do the line choices help the sense of the poem? Do any lines seem to be out of place?  Would the beginning be better at the end, or vice versa?
  1. Is there a leap of the imagination in the poem? Where? Does it work? What could you add or subtract or change that would make the poem better?

And, after all that work, and after giving the poet ample consideration, ask yourself           the following basic, critical questions:

  1. Do I understand this poem? Is it comprehensible on the denotative level, and does it lead me to unexpected realizations on a connotative level?
  1. Does the poem feel true to me, in any of these ways:
  • Is it convincing? Does it present a balanced and mature view of the world? Or is        it able to convey the diversity and messiness of the world? Is the poem rhetorically effective, actually persuading us to see something its way because of its artful manipulation of the tools that poetry can use, or does it just feel gimmicky and self-impressed?
  • Is it interesting, stylistically or substantively, in a way that fits with what I believe constitutes the poetic tradition?
  • Does the poem break new ground, or show me territory I haven’t seen before?
  • Does it feel just? Is it morally and ethically appropriate to the content being discussed, or is there some fundamental sociopathic disconnect that makes me feel creepy? Does this poem fit my sense of honorable human behavior or attitudes?
  • Is it revelatory? Does the poem lead me toward the numinous? Or, if you prefer secular humanism, does the poem show me ways to be a better, more  compassionate human being?
  • Am I simply entertained by it, and don’t give a damn about all of these other considerations?
  • Does this poem afford me a literary experience, or is it a socio-political tract or shameless pop song, etc., masquerading as a poem?
  1. In this age of poetry slams, is this poem designed for the page (a reading experience) or designed for the microphone and video camera (a performance experience) or some hybrid floating somewhere in between the two?

William Patrick author page


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