Genre Exploration: Tips to start reading poetry

Another day, another installment of my Genre Exploration series, where I discuss genres I don’t normally pick up, define them, talk about their classics and new releases, recommend books and authors, and much more.

If you want to read poetry but don’t know where to start, this is for you! It is also helpful for anyone who wants to read more poetry or maybe look at it from a different perspective. A few weeks back I discussed in this post what poetry was and some common misconceptions people have about it, so today I wanted to share with you some tips to help you start exploring poetry in the less intimidating way possible. These have worked for me and I hope they work for you too. Let’s check them out!

1. Forget everything you know about poetry

I’m talking about misconceptions, about definitions (yes, even my own definition), about absolutely anything you’ve ever heard of poetry. The trick is to simply read it without holding any expectations. Don’t over-think it! If you are scared of poetry, the only question that you should ask yourself after reading a poem is ‘did I like it?‘. If you did, you are on a good path. Now you know an author you might enjoy, a topic or tone that interested you, or even a style that resonated with you. This way you can look for similar works.

2. Ask the poem questions 

As I said, the first question you should ask a poem is ‘did I like you?‘, but then you can move on to other inquiries. Here are a few I find useful after I finish reading a poem:

  • What did you make me feel? | The most important question when it comes to poetry. What a poem made you feel is heavily linked to the topic, your experiences, your take on the poem, and how you connect with the work. Moved, inspired, melancholy – if it’s a genuine emotion, you know you’ve found a good poem for you!
  • What does it remind me of? | I find this question useful to identify my feelings. Why did it make me sad? What memory did it bring to mind? When I connect a poem to a past or current experience, it becomes a powerful piece of writing and it stays with me much longer.
  • Do I want to share you? | I love sharing books and quotes I love, so when I ask this question and the answer is yes, I know I’ve found something meaningful.

3. Listen to spoken word poetry

Before I even started reading poetry, I listened to it. It’s a lot easier this way because the author or the artist performs it in a way that gives you an inside look into the meaning of the poem – whether it’s a happy, sad, or ironic one, you are bound to discover that and much more by how they deliver it. Spoken word makes a poem alive and it’s easier for a piece to resonate with you this way. My favorite thing about hearing spoken word is listening to the intended rhythm, because I usually struggle to figure that out on my own and I find that if it’s done right, it can make a poem more powerful.

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A video to get you started is Sarah Kay: If I should have a daughter… This is a popular TED Talk about spoken poetry and its power in education. It features some poems by Sarah Kay that she performs passionately. It’s quite moving and inspirational, so I highly recommend it. Years after watching that video I discovered her poetry collection No Matter the Wreckage, which included poems from that TED Talk. I loved reading them on my own voice for the first time after having heard her version.

 

4. Read poems out loud

Instead of listening to a performer, listen to yourself read a poem! It is very closely related to the last tip, but I can tell you firsthand it’s a different experience. What makes it interesting is that you are interpreting the poem your own way. It’s fun, more personal, and it could bring out a different side of a poem.

5. If the classics fail, remember contemporary poetry

Every single time anyone mentioned poetry, I thought of Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson and that’s where my train of thought usually stopped. My brain, apparently, didn’t think that poetry was alive and well in today’s contemporary literature. I was surprised and confused when I read my first free verse contemporary poetry collection and liked it. I realized most of my expectations came from misconceptions and that’s when I started to really understand poetry as a genre. If you have read the classics of poetry in school and thought that it wasn’t for you, I urge you to try contemporary poetry. From poems about social media to feminism, you are bound to find a topic that interests you.

What questions would you ask a poem after reading it? Do you find these tips useful?

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17 thoughts on “Genre Exploration: Tips to start reading poetry

  1. I do find your tips useful. Spoken word is what got me to look at poetry in the First Place and Maggie Estep in particular is a great Spoken Word poet that can really tell a story. I would add one more tip though. Find poetry on a subject matter you love. I recently picked up a copy of Mary Oliver’s Dog Songs which is a book written entirely about dogs. For the insane dog mom that I am, that collection was perfect. There are even collections based entirely on fairy tales.

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    1. I have to check out Maggie Estep then! You’re right, although I mentioned it, I should have put it as a tip on its own, but thanks for bringing it up here in the comments. Dog Songs sounds amazing 😮

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      1. I clearly have not had enough coffee today. 🙂 My plan with Dog Songs is to read it out loud to my pug/dachshund and then write a review of it. Reviewing poetry can be really hard so I have shied away from it based only on the ground of I don’t feel like I can do it justice.

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      2. Oh, that’s no problem but thanks for the warning, only my brother speaks English and even if my parents heard it they wouldn’t mind at all 😛
        Reading dog poetry to your dogs sounds like the most precious idea I’ve ever heard, that’s so sweet. I have no clue on how to review poetry, so I actually don’t do it, but I hope that after reading many collections I start discerning things that I like and that I don’t. I think that can help me justify ratings and opinions.

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      3. Yea I know what you mean. I am thinking I may read a few collections and then do a micro-review post. As for Maggie, if you like her style she also wrote a few books. I didn’t realize it until I found one called “Hex” in a used bookstore. It’s sitting in one of my many piles. I should probably stop commenting on blogs and getting to those book piles.

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  2. Great post!! I don’t read poetry for pleasure (as an English major, I read a lot for school and it was so-so). But I do like spoken word! I had no idea Sarah Kay had a collection published! I will definitely check that out and maybe that’ll be the gateway for me to read more poetry! Thanks!

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  3. Ah, poetry. This is definitely a genre I do not touch, I’m scared after interpreting poems in high school and never getting them right (because high school tells you that there is the only one way to understand such a such poem). Thank you for the post, maybe I will give it a go… or maybe I’ll wait a bit longer for my high school trauma to fade away.

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  4. I love poetry, and I’m glad you feel the same way! I’m especially into it in high school, but these days I feel like I’ve neglected it. I just recently started watching spoken word videos, too, and I loved it as well! I’ve read “No Matter The Wreckage” and my favorite is also the Point B poem. My all-time favorite poet is Robert Frost; I especially loved his Fire and Ice. But my favorite poem is How Do I Love Thee by Elizabeth Barrett Browning 🙂

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      1. Yay I’m so glad you read it ❤ I used to be this firm believer that a true poem should rhyme, and I'm so glad I ditched that attitude because I've discovered a lot of great "non-traditional" poems since then.

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