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Main page » Non-Fiction » Self-Improvement » How to Read and Understand Poetry

How to Read and Understand Poetry


Gain New Tools to Enrich Your Appreciation

Professor Spiegelman begins with the idea that a thorough understanding of poetic patterns, techniques, habits, and genres will give you the tools you need to increase your own enjoyment of poetry and its insights.

Dr. Spiegelman provides you these tools through a careful reading and thoughtful analysis of the outstanding poems discussed in this course.

Rejecting the widespread misconception that good poetry must be difficult or arcane, he points out that whatever else it is, poetry is music-in-words. Within every poem speaks a living voice.

You don't need to be a professional scholar or critic to develop an excellent ear for poetic music and poetic voices.

Have Fun Learning from Our Best-Loved Poets

The poems are the heart of this course. These 113 examples span a rich variety of verse forms and all the periods of English literature from the Renaissance to the present.

They represent the work of many of our best-loved poets. At two pages or less, most are short enough to be memorized completely or in part with relative ease, so you can leave no line unturned in thinking about them with respect to four questions:

  • What do I notice about this poem?
  • What is odd, quirky, or peculiar about it?
  • What new words do I see, or familiar ones in new situations?
  • Why is it the way it is, and not some other way?

If you encounter existing favorite poems here, chances are you'll come away with a fresh and more profound sense of why you liked them so much in the first place.

And you'll almost certainly find yourself adding entirely new favorites of your own.

You also learn an array of literary insights and reading skills.

What Poetry Is: Understanding Three Characteristics

In particular, you learn about poetic techniques, patterns, habits, and genres. And you learn the three areas which, taken together, define what distinguishes poetry from other kinds of literature.

1. Figurative language

You learn why "figuration"—whether metaphor, simile, metonymy, synecdoche, or irony—is the crucial component of poetry.

The philosopher Aristotle, for example, who was also the first major Western literary critic, said that of all the gifts necessary for a poet, the gift of metaphor was the most important.

If you have everything else, such as a good ear, or a sense for plot or character, but lack the gift of metaphor, you won't be a good poet. If you have that gift, you'll still be a poet even if you lack everything else.

The course examines how poets seek to convey an idea or a feeling by representing something in terms of something else.

You discover why poetry is at once the most concise literary language ("the best words in the best order," Samuel Taylor Coleridge called it) and the most suggestive.

And you see why poetry's combination of concision and suggestiveness requires three things from a reader:

  • Pay close attention to words and music
  • See how things fit together
  • Sense the relationships that are stated, implied, or hinted at in the poet's style.

2. Music and Sound

Most poetry in English, until quite recently, has been written in formal ways, hewing to patterns of rhythm and rhyme. When Walt Whitman, in the middle of the 19th century, began writing a new kind of "free" verse, he began the move toward a new kind of poetry.

Robert Frost said the new form was like playing tennis with the net down. But Whitman's subtle rhythms, in fact, actually owed a great deal to the Bible, as well as to political speech and operatic song.

You learn how all good poems, whether in conventional forms or not, have a strong musical basis and represent a decision by the poet as to which form is most appropriate.

Indeed, sound, form, and meaning are all part of the same package.

3. Tone of voice

Tone is the subtlest, most elastic, and most difficult thing to "hear" in a poem. We know that misinterpreting tone can create trouble; but you learn that poetry's delicacy of tone is actually a strong asset, rather than a curse.

Just because a poem is about a certain subject does not mean it must maintain a prescribed attitude toward that subject. Much of the play of poetry comes from the discrepancy between what we might reasonably expect a poet to say and what is actually said; between the tone we anticipate and the tone that is used.

Once again, it was Frost who said over and over that the speaking voice in poetry is the most important thing of all.

A Blueprint for Performance ... and for Making It Your Own

Professor Spiegelman urges us to remember that a poem is like the script of a play. It is a blueprint for performance. Once you have thought about and read through a poem many times, you will be able to say it in your own way, having decided what to play up and what to play down.

As he notes, "Once you have it by heart, it will be as much yours as it is the author's."


Course Lecture Titles
  • 1. What to Look (and Listen) for in Poems
  • 2. Memory and Composition
  • 3. Poets Look at the World
  • 4. Picturing Nature
  • 5. Metaphor and Metonymy I
  • 6. Metaphor and Metonymy II
  • 7. Poetic Tone
  • 8. The Uses of Sentiment
  • 9. The Uses of Irony
  • 10. Poetic Forms and Meter
  • 11. Sound Effects
  • 12. Three 20th-Century Villanelles
  • 13. Free Verse
  • 14. The English Sonnet I
  • 15. The English Sonnet II
  • 16. The Enduring Sonnet
  • 17. Poets Thinking
  • 18. The Greater Romantic Lyric
  • 19. Poets Thinking—Some 20th-Century Versions
  • 20. Portrayals of Heroism
  • 21. Heroism—Some 20th-Century Versions
  • 22. Poems Talking to (and for) Works of Art
  • 23. Echoes in Poems
  • 24. Farewells and Falling Leaves

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