The annoying poetry professor begins, “All right, pupils: listen up! What rhythm do we have here in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem ‘Kubla Khan’?”
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
“I’ll beat on the desk to show you. The pattern of unstressed (short) and stressed (long) syllables goes short long, short long, short long, short long—‘In Xan-a-du did Ku-bla Khan.’ So what we have—if you are paying attention—is iambic tetrameter, four poetic feet of iambs. How are you [asks the annoying professor] going to appreciate poetry if you don’t know an iamb from a dactyl or an anapest from a trochee?”
Hold everything, Professor: Stop right there! Probably you were trained by pedants much like yourself, but the way to read a poem is not to rip it to shreds. A poem is not a code to be cracked. The way to read poetry is simply to enjoy yourself, as I am about to explain.
Come to know a poem gradually. Begin with an overall sense of its subject and tone. Read the poem all the way through, aloud or silently. Visualize the images—the words that paint pictures or arouse your other senses. Absorb the tone and mood.
Here is a well-known short poem by Emily Dickinson:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of Me.
It might take reading the poem a few times to figure out fully what Emily Dickinson is saying here, but the sense comes through immediately that she is speaking of hope as a bird that sings in spite of the storms and buffeting of life. Also immediately evident is her conversational tone, which is enhanced by the punctuation slowing the presentation of her thoughts. (Early editors “corrected”—i.e., damaged—Emily Dickinson’s poems by making her punctuation more traditional. Thomas H. Johnson’s edition of Emily Dickinson’s work restores the poems as she wrote them.)
Sometimes getting a general impression of a poem—simply sinking into its sounds and the mood it creates—is enough. If the poem inspires a second look, move on to such details as characters and situations and develop a clearer sense of the theme, the central idea the poem is expressing. The speaker in Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” for instance, is standing at a window overlooking the English Channel: “Come to the window, sweet is the night air!” he says to his companion. For the rest of the poem, the speaker talks about the view before him and the thoughts the scene inspires. For him, love is the only peace available in a world full of uncertainty and sorrow:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain:
If you want to dig still further into your poem, the next step is to take a look at its rhythm, rhyme, and word choice. By noticing these, you will better understand why the poem affects you as it does.
Look to see if there is a consistent rhythmic pattern, such as the alternating unstressed and stressed syllables in the professor’s lines from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” Another fairly common pattern is the galloping rhythm used in Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman.” You will see that the rhythm is well chosen to support the mood and meaning of the poem:
The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding—
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.
Rhyme is a feature present in most poetry written before the mid 20th century, as well as in some contemporary works. In William Shakespeare’s “Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds,” Sonnet 116, the first four lines discuss what love is not, and the next four lines explain what love is. (A sonnet is a fourteen-line poem that follows established rules for its rhythm and rhyme.) The rhyme scheme in Sonnet 116 supports the poem’s content:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments: love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
Minds, love, finds, remove. And now the next four lines use different rhymes:
Oh, no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Mark, shaken, bark, taken. Lines nine through twelve continue the established pattern (rhyme scheme) with new rhymes and further establish the qualities that mark genuine love:
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
Even if you don’t realize how a poet is using rhyme, the patterns can have a strong subliminal effect. Such is especially true for the sonnet’s rhyming closing couplet—two lines—which create a satisfying summary comment on the entire poem:
If this be error and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.
Finally, vivid and well-chosen words are essential to a poem. They should evoke sharp images and appeal to your senses. Particularly take note of a poet’s inventive comparisons. For example, “Her Legs,” by English Renaissance poet Robert Herrick, creates a pleasingly silly picture because of an unexpected comparison. This is the entire poem:
Fain would I kiss my Julia’s dainty leg,
Which is as white and hairless as an egg.
In her poem “A Work of Artifice,” contemporary poet Marge Piercy makes the point that many women live constricted lives. The poem compares a woman and a bonsai tree. Shakespeare’s “Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds” compares steadfast love to the North Star.
As you can see, poetry is not about obscure language and singsong meter. It’s not about figuring out that “Kubla Khan” goes da dah, da dah, da dah, da dah. It’s about experiencing the magic, mood, and meaning created by lines such as these:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
If technical terms and analysis interest you: great! I like them, too. Recognizing and understanding poetic techniques can help reveal the soul of a poem. But if the literary terms and tools overwhelm you, why not simply enjoy poetry on your own terms?
Reading contemporary poets, as well as the poetic heros and heroines of the past, is thrilling. Browse the poetry section of a bookstore to see whose work appeals to you. You can also get leads by searching online for “best contemporary poetry”; here’s a link to one useful site. If you don’t enjoy a particular poem or poet, go on to another one. The world is filled with so much incredible poetry that it would be a shame to get stuck wading through poems you don’t like for whatever reason. Try Mary Oliver, Pablo Neruda, Wislawa Szymborska, Langston Hughes, Billy Collins, Richard Wilbur, and hundreds more. Jump in and discover new poetic heroines and heros.
 Emily Dickinson, Poem 254, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Boston: Little, Brown, 1960). This and other Emily Dickinson poems are also available on several online sites, including https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/hope-thing-feathers-254.
 Robert Herrick (1591-1674), “Her Legs.”