How to Read a Poem
April is national poetry month, and we’ve got just the book to help you dive deep into an exciting world you may not know is waiting for you. (Plus a giveaway where one lucky reader will win a free copy!)
How to Read a Poem is a small, friendly manual from the T.S. Poetry Press Field Guide series. Your guide? Poet and teacher, Tania Runyan. In this well-written and useable book, Runyan does what any good educator does: she “leads out” of the reader or learner what they already know. Good news! If you are a human who reads, you already have everything you need to enjoy poetry—one (shockingly good) poem at a time. This book will show you how.
Based on the Billy Collins poem “Introduction to Poetry,” How to Read a Poem takes an imaginative approach to becoming a better reader of poetry. Runyan encourages the reader to think of the book as more of an invitation than an instructional book—an invitation to fall in love with poetry rather than analyze it to death. As such, she lets the poems themselves do the teaching, selecting from a wide range of decades and styles to illustrate the poetic features that Collins’ poem captures in metaphor.
So in the first section, we follow Collins’ exhortation to “take a poem/ and hold it up to the light” by exploring the way poems use pictures (imagery) to engage us at the level of the senses. Next, she offers us a handful of poems with especially rich imagery, so that we can practice noticing this for ourselves. And then we move on to a new focus, like sound or line breaks, and a new selection of poems to explore.
Runyan also shows us how our personal experiences can inform our development as readers of poetry. In addition to gently providing an overview of nuts-and-bolts literary features, Runyan offers us bits of conversation she has with other poets, as well as stories from her daily life as she explores a new poem.
This teaches something important about the stuff of poetry—that its magic is made up of the everyday—which extends to the process of understanding a poem. A reader might reflect on a single poem over the course of a day or a week or even years, and this might involve talking with others, or comparing what we’ve experienced to a work of visual art or a challenge from our daily lives. Bringing a poem into our lives with us is part of the enjoyment of discovering its full mystery.
What I love most about this book is the way it allows the process of reading a poem to remain mysterious. As a poet and writing instructor myself, I sometimes feel uneasy when I enter the classroom to teach poetry. Facing a room of students, and filled with my own love for and excitement about poetry, I’m faced with a vital but uncomfortable truth: there is much to reading and writing poetry that cannot be explained or taught. It must be practiced and experienced, and that takes time. How to Read a Poem shows the teacher in me that I can trust students to understand this paradox, just as the poet in me must trust the reader to understand the heart of a poem. In both cases, I do my best work when I don’t explain what I do not have to explain.
Runyan doesn’t overexplain or oversimplify. Instead, she shows us the humanity of poetry, guiding us toward an engagement with poetry without an agenda or script. She enters each poem as a reader first, modeling the process of encounter and discovery that makes poetry so exciting—and addicting. She shows us how moments of epiphany can occur on the first, second, and one-hundred-and-second reading of a good poem. The truth we discover about poetry is that within its rooms, new truths are always discoverable.
Want to win a copy of How to Read a Poem? Leave a comment below and we’ll choose a winner at random. Comments must be made by Wednesday, May 6th by 8am PST.