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Reading a Poem


These sections describe in detail the assignments students may complete when writing about literature. These sections also discuss different approaches (literary theory/criticism) students may use to write about literature. These resources build on the Writing About Literature materials.

Contributors:J. Case Tompkins
Last Edited: 2010-04-21 08:27:38

This resource should help you read and write about poetry.

Other OWL Resources:

Speak Up

Poetry is formed not only of words on the page but also the sounds of the voice. Reading a poem aloud gives you the full experience of the piece. It also clues you in to the emphasis placed on words by the stress of the meter, an emphasis vital to your understanding of the poem.

Practice: As you read, move your hand or nod your head as you try to sound out the beats of the meter.

Know the Form

Poetry is an ancient art with centuries of tradition behind it. When a poet chooses a certain verse form, that choice implies a certain set of understandings and assumptions. Knowing the common forms of poetry and the history of the forms can help you grasp how the poem should be read.

Practice: After you’ve determined the form of a poem, spend a little time with a dictionary or online researching on the form and its history. Consider how the poem would change if the poet had chosen a different form.


The economy of poetry invests each word with powerful meaning. It is important, therefore, to be aware of the multiple definitions of the words the poet uses. Have your dictionary handy when you read poetry. If you can, look up the definitions of important words in the Oxford English Dictionary. This will allow you to see the meaning of the word during the time of the poet.

Practice: Circle two or three important words in a poem you’ve read. Use a dictionary to look up the full definition for those words and consider how the meaning of the poem could change depending on the different definitions for the word your dictionary provides.

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