How To Interpret Classic Poetry and How To Get Into Modern Poetry

If you’re anything like me, it took you a while to “get” poetry. If I’m honest, a lot of it still confuses me or seems to fall flat. I don’t blame us, though, when the first poetry we are introduced to in English class is often centuries old. When we are taught how to read poetry, we tend to focus on form: rhyming and haikus and iambic pentameter. Poetry ends up feeling constrained, more like a riddle to be solved than the doorway to the human experience we were promised.

But poetry was always meant to be for the moment. When we read poetry from other eras, we study the context in which it was written: the culture, the political climate, the colloquial language of the time. At its core, poetry is specific and personal, drawing on the world around us and speaking to the nuances inside us.

The difference between the poetry of old and modern poetry is that modern poetry is written for us, the people who are alive today. The language should sound familiar and the details should spark images in our minds, triggering intimate memories and experiences. The modern movement of poetry is also less constrained in form. Rhyming isn’t emphasized as much and the format varies wildly, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less sophisticated.

Below are a few of my personal tips for reading poetry:

hear the music.

The primary factor that distinguishes poetry from other forms of writing is the way it sounds. Poets have a trained ear for that rhythm and use the following techniques to create the effect they want.

  • End rhyme: This is the kind of rhyming we learned from Dr. Seuss, where multiple lines end with similar-sounding words.
  • Internal rhyme: A more subtle rhyme where similar-sounding words are in the same line or placed midway through multiple lines.
  • Alliteration: Multiple words with the same beginning sound.
  • Assonance: Repetition of vowel sounds in nearby words.
  • Consonance: Repetition of consonant sounds in nearby words.
  • Repetition: Poets often repeat the same phrase throughout the poem to tie the whole poem together, sometimes changing the meaning or connotation of the phrase through the course of the poem.
  • Anaphora: Repeating the same phrase at the beginning of multiple lines to give the poem structure and flow (ex. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times).
  • Enjambment: An unusual line break in the middle of a sentence. Enjambment disrupts the flow of a poem, like stepping over a threshold. It also creates subtle double meanings by ending on an interesting word that triggers a different response on its own than in the context of the sentence.

consider context.

The most effective poetry is detailed and precise. If a poem you’re reading contains unfamiliar imagery, it helps to do a little Googling. Look up references you don’t understand. Find images of the places and objects the poet is describing. This practice will help you appreciate the richness of what you’re reading. A lot of people like to consider art in isolation from the person who created it, but I believe in the opposite approach. Poetry is personal, so knowing about the writer’s life will help you understand their work on a deeper level. What makes a poem memorable is the voice of poet—the sum total of a human being’s experiences and beliefs.

read what resonates.

Finally, don’t waste time on poetry that doesn’t ring true to you. It’s good to give every poet a fair chance, but time’s too short to waste it on poems that don’t speak to you on a personal level. Learn to let go of the poetry you “should” read and choose to invest time in finding poets that move you instead. By identifying what you do enjoy, you begin to discern your personal taste in poetry.