Broke Poetry 101: How To Read A Poem?

The bottom of a page with pencil text reads
And how?

So that is a really vague question. Let’s refine it a little: how to you rhythmically read a poem? How do you follow the notes that the poet has indicated for you?

On some level, considering this question will presuppose some things that we’ll have to come back to to really discuss them! I’ll get back to those things, I promise. But let’s try a quick, paradoxical guide as a first step on this Broke Poetry journey!

There are many schools of thought, but I think my first point is fairly common: you should read a poem out loud. A cheeky response to a serious question, but it bares saying! I think reading out loud gives a deeper appreciation of the sound of the work—this is fairly common advice for good reason. Anyone writing or revising anything should be reading their work out loud—but this is especially true if it’s poetry.

I digress! So you should read a poem out loud. But you’ve heard slam poets mocked as taking exaggerated pauses or you’ve heard someone flow through Keats or you speed-read Romeo and Juliet in high school and it worked for you! The question of tempo and rhythm is where you see diverging approaches and variations in thought.

I think that regardless of how you approach things, most could agree that you should slow down when you’re reading a poem. Of course, there’s no need to read comically slow, but we (myself included!) have a tendency to rush through text, perhaps especially when we’re reading out loud. Try to slow down and don’t sprint to the right margin and down the margin with all your might. I think this is another point that isn’t controversial.

Also common wisdom would be to pause and acknowledge the poet’s punctuation marks as the rests in the composition. How prominent or heavy these rests should be may vary, but I think you should feel it out for yourself. A single piece of punctuation, take a comma for instance, could have different texture in different lines within the same poem! It isn’t unheard of for teachers to have some sort of chart (whether actual or imagined) that gives precise increments of time or breath for each piece of punctuation, but I think that’s a little unnecessary. If you have a hard time following how different punctuation should be read or inflected, I’d urge you to head over to PennSound and read along as poets read their poems. I will get more into punctuation in a future installment!

The largest and key variance in approach will be with the attitude toward line breaks, or the places where the text drops off on the right side before the next line resumes on the left. I’ve noticed that the approach to performing poetry diverges into two camps on this point. At least it is simpler to see it as a divide into two camps! So give me this conceit.

One group—I think this is the larger and more influential group—will insist upon “reading” the line breaks. Whether or not there is punctuation, there will be a slight pause as the end of every line to indicate the break in the line. This may even be taught as the line being equal to one breath. Some poets will practice this in their performance more than others, but here is an example of someone that very clearly indicates the form of their poem and the line breaks with this pause.

Let’s look at a text and audio recording from PennSound of Robert Creeley’s “I Know a Man.” I will admit that perhaps this is not the best example of it, but I think you can feel the slight pauses after “John, I” and “darkness sur-.” Overall, this reading is choppy but the effect is enhanced by Creeley’s insistence on reading the line breaks!

The other group considers the sentence of grammatical phrase to be the marker for performance. This group will commonly blow through line breaks and favor merely indicating the actual punctuation marks in their reading. In this camp, the visual breakdown of the poem is less important to performing it than the content is.

William Carlos Williams is known for his short, imagist poems with tiny lines. These poems have phrases broken all over the place. However, his readings seldom indicate them as clearly as some may prefer. Let’s take a look at these readings of “This Is Just to Say” by Williams. I think that most of those sharp line breaks are blown through in all of these readings, actually!

I have been instructed to read in both ways and I see the strengths of both approaches. I recognize that by reading the line breaks you make the form of the poem more audible and present in your performance, but I definitely appreciate the considering of the sentence as the block for meaning in performance.

So where do I think you should fall when you’re reading. I actually think that you should try both and feel it out. If you are writing or revising a poem, reading the poem with the line breaks and using that to judge your opinion of what you have can help. Reading someone else’s work both ways will help you feel the different rhythm’s of the poem and really get to know the content. I think trying to read a poem both ways can also help you to see some of the imagery differently and really get into any double meanings that a line break might be able to evoke.

But that is largely, my advice. There are plenty of purists that will insist on only one way as the true way. I’d disregard them and head forward, practicing and experimenting with how you deliver a poem. Feel it out. Does this call for hard line breaks? Does this line need to move a little quicker? Does this line break need to be left out? Is this line break really important? I think that you should feel confident in trying your own hand at figuring those questions out. You should breathe deeply and feel confident in your voice—regardless of who wrote the piece!


Whew! A long answer! But I hope you stuck with it and appreciated my semi-educated advice.

Broke Poetry 101: An Inauguration Of A New Series

I’m no guru, and I don’t want to be one.

I don’t have a terminal degree in poetry.

For that matter, I received my B.A. in philosophy. Regardless, I have spent some time reading, writing, and dissecting poetry in an academic setting. That fact is probably fairly obvious from the essays that I’ve shared here!

In thinking about my background and my tendency to just jump into that work, I came upon an idea: I may not have all the answers, but maybe I could write a series on some of the esoteric vocabulary/techniques/culture that I take for granted when I think about poetry. A few years ago, I didn’t have this toolkit at all. And I honestly can’t think of another free resource that goes into these topics in the way that would have helped me get to where I am.

(To be fair, there is probably something, somewhere, by someone that breaks all of this stuff down in this way. I just don’t know that resource!)

So this series is a chance for me to practice breaking down what I know, to help anyone that I may unintentionally alienate, and to hear from you if you have any better information that I’m overlooking. I hope you enjoy it and follow along!

For the first actual post I’ll be considering how to read or perform a poem. That will take a lot into account, but it is a question that I was really puzzled by when I first dove into poetry in a more serious way.

A Tiny Essay on Poem #826 by Emily Dickinson

A woman, Emily Dickinson, in a black and white photograph, is sitting next to a desk.

Just for y’all:

I wrote this essay for a free course on modern poetry that I’m currently enrolled in on Coursera. The class has been a really interesting exercise and I’ve gotten to read some poets that I’m woefully under-versed (pun intended) in. This short essay was just such an opportunity that I relished! Now I’m going to have to further bone up on my Dickinson.

Seriously, if you have any interest in learning about the history of contemporary poetry for free, you should check it out.

Also, this essay was given a word limit so it does jump right in pretty cold. I also don’t do a ton of verbatim quotes of phrases in the essay, so it may be worthwhile to refer to the text if you get lost. You can find the tiny, powerful poem here.


“Love” in the first line gives us images of affection or intensity of emotion. “Reckons” is tied to calculating, acting, but also can be used to mean “to rely upon.” “Itself” injects self-reference–love must be self-reliant and rely upon or calculate love. “Alone” set off by dashes and left lowercased underlines this self-reference and gives a feeling of singularity or solitary action. Even the choice to set it apart with two dashes and leave it lowercase underlines the loneliness and solitary notion.

The second line begins with a quotation that is a comparison. Perhaps “love” or “alone” is meant to be seen “as large as I,” but this is vague with the form of the poem. Dickinson refuses to use periods or comma and gives us breaks with dashes and line breaks. Regardless, “large” also connects to intensity–something that overwhelms another with its size. “I” in the comparison reminds us of the established self-reference and self-reliance.  After a dash, “Sun” also connects to intensity, power, and enormity while adding light. The third line offers “One” that is placed in a comparison with “Sun” enjambed across the line break; “One” in the comparison pointing to singularity and personhood. There seems to be two comparisons: “Love” is to “I” as the “Sun” is to “One.”

But the third line tells as that “One” has never felt “it blaze.” This lonely point hasn’t experienced the warmth or enormity of the sun. So while we have two comparisons–both seeming to draw an equivalence of size or magnitude–while knowing that the “One” has never experienced the “Sun.” From this point, we could potentially assume that the “I” has never felt “Love.” By giving the two relations that are to be taken as equal, we are to suppose this further extension of the comparison from the third line.

The final line (ending the poem with a dash, in kind with the rest of the lines) drives again at solitude and selfhood with “Itself” and “it.” It is not clear precisely what “it” is (perhaps it is Love or it is the self), but we are shown that “it” is alone and while it may be as great as “Love” or the “Sun,” “it” has not experienced those.

This riddle around an identity’s lack of love or sun leaves a lonely image, but refuses to relent by insisting that the self is just as great. Dickinson refuses to lament or whither in loneliness, but affirms it and affirms her own style of punctuation and twisting poetry that dares you to enter the practice of reading it.

Watching Some Thing Careening Toward Somewhere

It is so impossible to fight
when your tips
are so veiled. I want to hi-jack

the process, suck
the stem’s meat,
and leave the husk—
a hurdle.

Yes.

Breathe

Who is Possibility?
Who is Limit? What windows
are made for knocking
with rocks and wishes?

I’m always asking questions.
It’s a rhetorical flourish.
Better left to those with interlocutors
that may search for answers—
that may scrawl answers.

I understand

what you mean. This is our yoga.
It is the reward, the goal,
and we are here to yoke
closer to this Truth.

But then why
are your ambitions?
Why share anything
with anyone?
And why show
the cover of a new book?
And why stitch
manuscript after manuscript after manuscript?

A Point, A Map

What does a lie or liar mean to you?
Show me the contour of the terrain and describe the taste of your staked ownership, with as few rods as possible.
I am interested in pictures of projections of constellations and maps that demonstrate the singular nature of viewing—you know, the fact that a view point is from point and you most move that to take a whole thing in.
I propose Kant and the sound of my voice.