Poetry Month

How to Read Poetry 101: Whys and Wherefores

Welcome, dear readers, to April, a month variously named sweet and cruel in poetry across the ages, and therefore uniquely appropriate to a series on How to Read Poetry. Over the next four weeks I want to transform you from a sheepish non-reader of poetry into a curious appreciator of it by doing the following:

  • Demonstrating that poetry is more than the dry dusty stuff people tried to cram down your throats in high school, and that you’re missing out on something awesome and important by shunning it wholesale.
  • Suggesting different ways of approaching poems you’re not understanding to help you figure out whether there’s something in here for you to enjoy or not.
  • Introducing you to the fantastic poetry of the authors whose fiction you may already love.

What I won’t do is hold forth about things like the difference between synecdoche and metonymy or why some bits of Shakespeare are written in iambic pentameter while others are written in trochaic tetrameter. I love that stuff, but for my purposes here it’s besides the point. You don’t need to know these things to enjoy poetry; you don’t need to be able to tell the difference between a sonnet and a sestina to be spellbound by them. Rhyme schemes, verse forms and prosody are fascinating things, but my sense is that they’re also intricate and elaborate window dressing that has for too long obscured the window itself.

I want you to look through the window, let your eyes adjust to the light, and start telling me what you see. I want you to experience the feeling that good poetry evokes—what Liz Bourke has called “the immanence of things that know no words,” something that’s “as close as [she] get[s] to religious experience, anymore.” I want you to feel what it means to really click with a poem, to want to memorize it so you can keep it with you always, as close to you as your skin.

Let’s begin.

Why You Should Read Poetry

Part of me is perpetually astonished that I need to explain to people why they should read poetry. The mainstream perception of poetry in the anglophone West is fundamentally alien to me. Over and over I encounter the notion that poetry is impenetrable, reserved for the ivory tower, that one can’t understand or say anything about it without a literature degree, that it is boring, opaque, and ultimately irrelevant. It seems like every few months someone in a major newspaper blithely wonders whether poetry is dead, or why no one writes Great Poetry anymore. People see poetry as ossified, a relic locked away in textbooks, rattled every now and then to shake out the tired conclusions of droning lecturers who have absorbed their views from the previous set of droning lecturers and so on and on through history.

How To Read Poetry Why To Read Poetry

Let me tell you the first thing I ever learned about poetry: it was what my grandfather spoke to keep up morale while imprisoned for his politics in Lebanon, in the ’60s. His extempore mocked the guards, the terrible food, made light of the vicious treatment he and his fellow prisoners received. Someone in a cell next to him was moved enough to write down his words with whatever he had on hand—in his case, a stub of pencil and a roll of toilet paper. We still have it, framed, in my family’s home in Canada.

I was in Lebanon when my parents told me these stories. I was seven years old, and just beginning to read and write poems myself. When my parents told me that my choosing to write poetry was a tremendous act, I believed them. After all, hardly a day went by without people at school, or in shops, or on the streets, learning my surname and asking me if I was any relation to Ajaj The Poet.

Amal El-Mohtar How To Read PoetryI grew up being taught that poetry is the language of resistance—that when oppression and injustice exceed our capacity to frame them into words, we still have poetry. I was taught that poetry is the voice left to the silenced. To borrow some words from T. S. Eliot’s essay “The Metaphysical Poets” and use them out of context, poetry has the capacity “to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into [its] meaning.” In a world where language frequently sanitizes horror—mass murder into “ethnic cleansing,” devastating destruction of life and infrastructure into “surgical strikes”—poetry allows for the reclamation of reality.

Why Poetry on Tor.com

Of course, the poetry I read and wrote when I was seven bore no resemblance to my grandfather’s speaking truth to power. For one thing I was reading in English, not Arabic; for another, I was a child. I was charmed by a poem about a fairy that used a snail’s slime trail for a shimmering piece of clothing. I memorized the songs and riddles in The Hobbit. I fell in love with an abridged version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that preserved the Renaissance pronouns, such that the first line of the first poem I ever wrote was “O Moon, O Moon, why art thou so pale?”

(Yes, okay, you can stop giggling now. No, really, quit it.)

Amal El-Mohtar Reading Poetry

So the first poetry I read was the stuff of fantasy, and now, 21 years on from that experience, the poetry I love best is still that which is fantastical, which contains some element of the marvellous, the speculative, the strange. It helps that the poetry taught from the canon of English literature is full of fantasy: from the Christian mythography of Paradise Lost to the threatening creatures of Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” to the fragments Eliot shored against his ruin in The Waste Land, poetry was where the most wonderful aspects of my degree in literature lived.

So there is a beautiful intersection, to me, between poetry and genre fiction: in performing that dislocation of language into meaning, poetry essentially does to language what SF does to reality. Poetry takes us out of the mundane sphere of denotative speech and into the realm of the evocative in the way that SF takes us out of the mimetic, hum-drum everyday and into the impossible.

Mostly for the purposes of this series I’ll be drawing on poems I love from Stone Telling, Mythic Delirium, Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, Ideomancer, Goblin Fruit, Through the Gate, and inkscrawl. Take note of these; you’ll need them for future homework.

TL;DR Summary:

  • Poetry is important.
  • Poetry is vast and contains multitudes, and will make you feel things you’ll struggle to put into words.
  • You don’t need a degree to read, understand, and love poetry.
  • You are allowed to read a poem and hate it. Hating a poem does not necessarily mean that you haven’t understood it. Try to figure out what it is you hate, and read a different poem.


Here is a poem I would like you to read, right now, immediately, with no preparation except a deep breath and a sense of adventure. It is very short, all of eight lines.

Ready? Go!

Moral,” by Alicia Cole.

Read it once in your head; stop. Take stock of whether or not it has had an effect on you.

Now, read it again, but out loud, as if you were reading it to someone else in the room.

Comment with the following:

  • Whether you loved it, liked it, hated it, or “didn’t get it.”
  • As spontaneously as possible, your articulation about why you felt that way. There are no wrong answers! As you leave comments, I will engage with them and ask you questions or make my own comments about your thoughts, potentially with suggestions for further reading.

Tune in next week for stuff about spoken word and the transformative magic of reading poetry aloud.

Amal El-Mohtar is the author of The Honey Month, a collection of stories and poems written to the taste of 28 different kinds of honey. She has twice received the Rhysling award for best short poem, and her short story “The Green Book” was nominated for a Nebula award. She has recently contributed more ramblings on Doctor Who to the Hugo-nominated Chicks Unravel Time (Mad Norwegian Press), and also edits Goblin Fruit, an online quarterly dedicated to fantastical poetry. Follow her on Twitter, where most evenings she posts a link to a single poem and invites people to discuss it under the hashtag #eveningpoems.


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