When people are learning how to become more efficient and effective readers, the subject of poetry often comes up. For most people, poetry seems a laborious read, one filled with hard-to-pronounce words, complex themes, and structures that appear to embrace subvocalization rather than eschew it. In truth, can you read these works efficiently? The answer is yes – up to a point.
Most readers encounter a wide variety of texts in their reading, ones that can range in difficulty from a simple dramatic novel to a dense, equation-loaded scientific textbook. Learning to be an efficient reader means learning how to approach each of these types of readings with the appropriate strategies. The same is true for poetry. When you understand the requirements of the form, you can develop and implement an appropriate strategy for reading it effectively. And not all poetry is difficult to read or to understand – this is a common misconception propagated largely by students who have endured classes either tediously taught or ones that have not adequately explained the medium.
Poetry is different from most reading in that the words are related to sound, and, therefore, there is an auditory component to it. Knowing this, you should realize that you will most likely need to read the work slower than your fastest reading pace and with subvocalization present. In fact, you will at some point in the process need to say the words out loud, but you should never start there. Instead, preview the poem just like you would preview any other reading. First, look at how the author structured the work:
- Are there stanzas, or is it one long piece of writing?
- Does the poem employ rhyme, either at the ends of each line or at the ends of stanzas?
- Is there a meter or rhythm to the words?
- Does the writer use fairly common words, or has she chosen mostly long and difficult – or even archaic – ones?
If the poem is broken into stanzas, you can read short segments in bursts and then stop to see if you’ve gotten the main idea of that section; if it’s one long piece, it may be more difficult for you to process on a first read, but you will still be able to gain some valuable information. Rhyme, meter, and rhythm all indicate sound and familiarity, as well as a flow to the words – all will help you speed up your reading. If the words are simple, you may have an easier time moving through the text with speed and processing meaning as you go. If the text has a lot of long words, difficult language, or complex phrases you will both have to consult a dictionary to determine meanings and to read through the sections at a slower speed to parse what is on the page.
Next, read the poem from beginning to end at best possible speed. Do not stop for difficult or archaic words. Your purpose in this phase is to get a first impression of the work as a whole. When you are through reading, make a few notes detailing 1) what you thought the poem was about (theme or main idea), and 2) how the poem made you feel. You may change your opinion about these after later analysis, but it is good to establish a baseline from which to start. Next, look up any words you don’t know or only “sort of know.” Make particular note of words that can mean more than one thing or act in more than one part of speech (ex. Walk: to move using ones legs, and Walk: a pathway). Also look up any place names mentioned, as these will give you a frame of reference for the story being told. Then, read through the poem from top to bottom again at your best possible speed, seeing how much more you can understand after your research. Make any revisions to your idea about the poem’s theme you feel are necessary. You can also highlight key passages or make notes in the margins.
At this point, poetry deviates from most other types of reading in that it should be spoken out loud to hear the sound of the language and in that you will be analyzing it for tone, diction, and allusions. The key takeaway from this type of reading, though, is that it IS possible to use your knowledge of effective reading techniques to gain valuable information about the work before you reach the analysis phase; it’s simply a matter of knowing how to approach the type of material and of establishing the strategies that will be most effective in aiding your comprehension and later recall.