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How To Understand Poetry

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As much as I love reading and writing poetry, I'm not about to sit here and say it's the easiest thing to understand and enjoy. Sometimes, it isn't. Sometimes, I will read a poem through and I'll scrunch up my face before exclaiming, 'you what?!'. 

If that confusion sounds familiar to you, I'm here to share some advice that I've picked up along the way as to how to understand poetry. 

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With each read, poems tend to reveal a little more of themselves and, in all honesty, sometimes poems make absolutely no sense without a little time to ponder them. I always read a poem a few times over before I come to any conclusion about it. 

Once you've read it in your head a few times, read it aloud! Reading poetry aloud helps to illuminate the whys and wherefores: What does it sound like? Why were certain word choices made?  What's the rhythm like? 

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I discussed the benefits of marking up books earlier this year and I really think it comes into its own when it comes to poetry. The marks you make don't have to be overly insightful either, you could go back to basics and just start by underlining words you like or ideas that you feel are integral to the poem. 

You could also mark ideas or words that you don't yet understand in order to come back to them.

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The way a poem is presented on the page can be just as important as the content. Look at the way it sits on the page. Does it look 'traditional' to you? Does the poet play with white space? Leave gaps between certain words? How many stanzas are there? 

Use of space in a poem could allude to certain feelings that the poet has about what they're writing about and it can also be their way of letting you into their world a little more. 

Looking at a poem as a whole can be very intimidating though, I realise that. So, alternatively, you could try and break it down into sections. Take it a sentence at a time or take it image by image. 

If breaking it down so much doesn't work for you, try putting it into a context that you feel more comfortable with. Do you like to take photographs? Consider the poem as a series of separate images. What do those images convey? If you listen to music, think about why the poem sounds the way it does. Is it pacey and rhythmic like your favourite pop banger? Or is it dull like a Coldplay song? If you like theatre, consider the different acts of the poem. Who or what is the antagonist? Is it a Shakespearian-esque tragedy or more farcical and light? If you like going to the cinema, why not visualize the poem as a short film? 

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You could also pop it into your own personal context! Look at the setting, have you been anywhere like that before? If so, what did it look like? How did you relate to your surroundings at the time?

Think about the poem's subject. Have you come across it before in your own life? 

Or, think about the feelings the poet is trying to convey. When did you last feel them? How did you process them? What would it be like to feel those feelings in the context of the poem? 

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So far, my advice has been very insular. However, I also think one of the best ways to understand poetry is to talk about it with other people. Pass it along to someone else and see what they think. Come up with a few ideas together. You're both going to be coming to the poem with different life experiences and different ways of interpreting things, utilise that! 

I also like to research the poetry that I read. Find out when and where it was written and why. Look up what was happening in the world at the time and think about how that may have influenced the poet. You may also stumble across the poet's intent, too, which can be extremely insightful.

You could also research wider ideas relating to the form and craft, such as 'white space in poetry'. That's, of course, digging a little deep though so you don't need to do that if you're just wanting to read poetry on a surface level!

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And those are 6 bits of advice that I have to give you when it comes to understanding a poem. Poetry isn't the easiest thing to get on board with but I hope my advice has in some way opened up more ways for you to interpret it. Do you have any other tips for those wondering how to understand poetry?



  1. Thank you for pointing out various ways of gaining better insight to poetry. My limited knowledge and understanding is confined to the rhyming, iambic pentameter stanzas taught in my Grammar school education days of yore. Thus, although I've written a few poems during my long lifetime, 'modern' poetry is something that's been beyond my comprehension ... until now, perhaps. I'll endeavour to apply some of your suggestions when reading poems in future.

  2. Hello, great ideas of reading poetry. After studying Creative writing at university I believe that it depends on what you make the poem to be about rather than the exact reason why the poet meant the poem to be about. Everyone reads and understand poetry differently, according to their life experiences. But, it is good to look up the poet's meaning behind the words after reading the poem, or poems.

  3. Oh, what a beautiful post! Poetry can seem so inaccessible & high brow for far too many people, which is why I absolutely adore these sorts of posts that break it down into something simple & readable & only the lovelier for it. Thank you so much for sharing with us, friend. <3

    Topaz (Six Impossible Things)

  4. Some really great tips here! I studied a poetry module last year and came across a few of these too and they have definitely helped, especially reading poetry aloud. I tend to read the poem a few times first before researching the poet and its context as I usually don't want it to influence my interpretation too much. Finding yourself in the poem is a new one for me but definitely one I'm going to consider in future. Thanks so much for this!!

    Nabeela :)


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