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.

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