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Updated on April 18, 2008


For some reason, poetry gets a bad rap. Our society doesn't value it, poor teaching habits encourage our children to disdain it (or worse), and mainstream publications take great pains to avoid putting between their covers. And yet, when properly experienced, poetry can be one of the most profound, meaningful, and emotionally moving interactions we have with our written --or in some cases, spoken--language.

That is, if it's done right.

Here are some tips for understanding how poetry is supposed to work, methods for interacting with poetry, and myths about poetry that I'd like to attempt to dispel.


Poetry's main concern is with experience. When you walk away from an effectively written poem, you should be able to say that it made you think something or feel something--or, in some rare cases, both. Poetry says more and says it MORE INTENSELY than other forms of literature. In a perfect world, poetry doesn't merely TELL us about an experience, but through the use of images, comparisons, and the music of language, it allows us to experince it first hand by using our imagination.

If no experience is transmitted, either the poem is not a good poem or else the reader hasn't used the right technique. I've read some poems that I didn't "get," but years later said, "oh, that's what they meant!" either because I learned how to read it better or increased my life experience to match what the poet was trying to say. It is the poet's job to be accessible. Some poets feel that the harder and more obscure the poem is, the better the poem. I hate those poets. Poems should be understandable. But that does not mean they have to be unartful. On the other hand, it helps if the reader is tuned into the requirements of the poem.


It's time to dispel some of the myths that have always surrounded poetry.

  • Poetry isn't just for sissies. Many boys come into classroom around the nation already predisposed to dislike poetry because they have been conditioned to think that poetry is inherently girlie. I have read poems about tattoos, baseball, and big rigs.
  • Poetry doesn't always have to beautiful. It doesn't always have to be about nature, animals, butterflies, or rainbows.
  • Poetry can be about anything. I've read poems about cars, small appliances, and kitchen utensils. The key is to communicate the experience through the conventions of language.
  • Poetry doesn't always have to teach us something. Sometimes poetry can just capture a snapshot of life.


Poetry is the most concentrated form of literature, saying the most in the fewest number of words. Consequently, the language is high-charged. Every single word must contribute to the overall effect of the poem and carry its own weight, probably even more than that. This gives poetry a higher voltage.

Good poetry, then, gives off both light and heat.

Poetry also uses comparisons (similes, metaphors, personifications), figurative language (words not meant to be taken literally, but evocatively), and imagery (word pictures that appeal to the five senses). If these devices are used to their fullest effect, the reader should be able to have a positive experience with the poem.


It is the job of a good poet to communicate meaning. That doesn't mean, however, that the reader has no responsibility. Here are some techniques readers can use to more fully appreciate the poem in front of them:

  • Read a poem more than once. Maybe during subsequent readings more meanging will emerge.
  • Keep a dictionary close at hand and look up unfamiliar words.
  • Read so you hear the words in your mind.
  • Pay attention to what the poem wants to say to you.
  • Paraphrase the poem (put it in your own words)
  • And finally, read the poem aloud.

If you use these techniques in your attempts to understand and appreciate poetry and the poem doesn't speak to you, chances are it's the poem's fault.

A good poem is electric. A good poem gives off fireworks. A good poem can shift a reader's perspective on life and change the way he or she views the world. And in my book, that's worth the price of admission right there.

I'm not saying that poetry is for everyone and that everyone should love it. Some people just don't connect with certain concepts in the same way as others might, much in the same way that I have never enjoyed or understood Algebra, power tools, or New Kids on the Block.

FORGETFULNESS by Billy Collins


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      8 years ago

      It doesn't have to contain big words that nobody else knows or uses. It doesn't have to be about depression, or suicidal tendencies. It doesn't have to be written in such a way that only Rhodes scholars can understand it... (I could go on and on).


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