Poetry. Just the word makes many students (and teachers!) groan. I could write a whole essay about why, but let’s focus on the reality at hand. You need (and/or want!) to read poetry for a class or for your own personal development.

Through this lesson, I’ll address the mindset of reading poetry that I’ve found slowly melts away resistance and opens people to taking in — and appreciating — what poetry has to offer.

Preparation

Write a journal entry (or record a voice memo) about one page long, reflecting on the following questions:

  • What are some questions you have about poetry?
  • What do you hope to learn about poetry in this unit?
  • What are some subjects you might write about if you were to write a poem? What most inspires you?

Materials

  1. Introduction to Poetry by Billy Collins
  2. Ars Poetica by Archibald MacLeish
  3. Humans Aren’t the Only Makers of Poetry by Joy Harjo

Step by Step: Reading Poetry

“Don’t worry about what a poem means,” says poet Joy Harjo. “Do you ask what a song means before you listen? Just listen.”

In this lesson, you’ll learn some main steps — or rather some practices or actions — for reading poetry. Later in the lesson, you’ll have a chance to put them into practice.

  1. Open up Billy Collins’ “Introduction to Poetry.” Read the poem aloud a few times. Enter the “world of the poem.” Listen to it, like listening to a new song by your favorite band (intently, with interest!)

After you read a couple of times, listen to the course video and / or listen to Billy Collins, the poet, reading it. (Do you experience the poem differently when you hear other voices read it?)

2. Read more closely each time you go through the poem. Read the whole poem, then stanza by stanza, then line by line. Try to absorb a little more each time you read. Don’t worry about understanding every word. Absorb the tone and feeling. Let it wash over you. Start becoming aware of certain lines or parts that stand out to you.

3. What happened in the poem? What do you notice most? Enjoy and Experience the poem more than Understand.

Notice. What language surprises you? Read with curiosity, openness. What line or words or phrases stand out to you, stir a reaction, prompt a question, make you feel an oh! or huh? Make small notes of these — a question mark, underline, few-word comments. Is something strange? Confusing? Interesting? Unexpected? Huh? Wow?

*These small notes are called annotatations, the action is to annotate. The idea is to get into the habit of responding to the text actively while you read, and record genuine reactions. Annotating helps you remember how you first reacted to what you read, and it helps your brain stay engaged and process what you’re reading.

Now, go back through and look over your notes. What images or lines or ideas most draw you in? Note at least three moments in the poem you’d want to look at further or talk about. You could go to the discussion section and share some of your thoughts and see what other students have said, or you could just think of them silently.

Here are some thoughts on the images in the poem that I think about or that other students have shared:

  • the image of holding the poem up to the light — it gives a sense of peering up, curiosity
  • listening to the poem like a hive — a slight buzzing, a child adventuring in nature and pressing their ear against the beehive to explore
  • the mouse going through the poem like a maze — not necessarily knowing where to go but going down one path, turning around and trying another — exploration
  • waterski and waving — having fun! sailing across the surface — not always having to deep-dive into “meaning.” The ‘name’ doesn’t necessarily mean anything, even big names like Shakespeare!
  • And of course — that last image of beating the poem with a hose, torturing a confession out of it… We don’t want to do that. So wait, how do we read & why do we read? All the ways he shows us in the images above!

5. Finally, a little more understanding. Here are some elements of poems we commonly consider when reading. The point of knowing these is not to analyze but to think about some “parts” of the poem that might be interesting to wonder about.

  • What do you notice about the poem’s form (especially what it looks like)? Poetry is visual, on the page. It has lines and rhythm and structure, so it’s good to wonder about the structure of each poem you read.
  • Who’s speaking?
  • What is the language like? (formal, figurative, metaphors?) Is there repetition? Sounds? Rhythm?
  • Any major shifts? They can clue us into important moments.
  • What’s the tone? Pleasant or dreamy, sarcastic, funny, cynical, angry?
  • How does the poem end, and how might that ending inform what we take away from the poem, how we feel about it at the end?
  • How does the poem, overall, seem to work, make its world? Or put another way: How would you describe this poem’s world? You’ll know more about different “worlds” of poems and how they work the more you read!

Here are some thoughts about these questions. There are so many possibilities in your answers, so add in your own thoughts.

  • The poem is in 7 stanzas (sections). Most stanzas focus on one image — the color slide, the hive. They alternate in how they begin: “I ask them to” or “I say” and then “or.”
  • Who’s speaking? Probably a teacher. “Introduction to Poetry” sounds like a class the teacher might be teaching. Maybe it could also be read as the poet?
  • There are a lot of metaphors about how to read the poem. To gaze up at it, to listen, to ski across the surface. The metaphors help us see how to read, what the action might look like. They give me a visual image of how to read, how to feel: have fun, be curious, like a child playing.
  • What about a turn/shift? At the “But” there is a shift. It’s like we were having fun through the poem, and then all of the sudden — BUT — they want to torture it. (And who’s “they”? Probably teachers and students in classrooms! Maybe literary critics.)
  • How does it end? The ending lines in poetry can really lead us to how to interpret it. So, last question:

What do you take away from the poem?

For me, this speaker is advocating for enjoying the poem, playing in a childlike way instead of “torturing” ourselves with what it “really means.” That last line makes me think — there is no “real” meaning. I hope that the process of reading we just went through shows you that there is no one meaning in poetry. Reading poetry is like looking at a painting, holding up a slide to the light, saying “hmmm.” The more you read, the more you notice how different poems work, and you become more aware of possible things you could see in a poem, or what one poem does differently from another, which makes it interesting. But the point is, when we read poems we’re not reading information. We’re looking at a work of art, almost like taking in a painting. We can stand back like in a gallery, and our interpretation is more, “Is it this? or is it that?” than knowing for sure.

What actions will you take in reading poetry?

Remember: Listen. Absorb. Let it Wash Over. Experience. Notice. Be Curious and Open. React. Make Small Notes. Finally – Understand. Or take lessons from the poem itself — hold it up to light, listen to its hive, probe, waterski!

Practice and Discussion

  1. Now, read Archibald MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica” using the steps and actions of reading from today’s lesson.

Discussion Questions: (to do independently or in the comment section):

  • What one or two images, lines or ideas stood out to you most in the poem? Reflect on how you felt, how you responded, what it meant to you, or how it expands your idea of what poetry is.
  • Compare one or two lines, images, or ideas in Collins’ poem (“Introduction to Poetry”) with MacLeish’s (“Ars Poetica”). How are the ideas about poetry similar or different between the two poems?

2. Read “Humans Aren’t the Only Makers of Poetry,” practicing all our steps once again.

Discussion Question or Journal Entry: Especially with this poem, let it wash over you instead of trying to interpret. Pick out some lines, images, or ideas you notice.

How does this poem add to your idea of what poetry is or could do? What does it make you think about?

Did you notice the form? (It’s in long lines, almost a paragraph, whereas the other two poems are in stanzas.) How does the form of this poem make it feel different than the others? How does the form of this poem work with what it’s saying?

Let’s end in reflection. Revisit your journal entry from the beginning of this lesson, reread it, and add to it.

  • What did you learn about poetry?
  • What questions do you still have?
  • How is reading poetry different from reading for information? How would you describe the experience of reading poetry?
  • What images or ideas from the poems will you remember most?

*Please comment if you would like to share what you learned! Thanks for joining the class!

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