Questions for reading poems

In the Spring 2020 issue of Poetry London magazine, Joey Connelly writes about the idea of trusting poems and their authors. He begins the article by stating that ‘Reading is the important part of literature. Not writing. To understand an historical moment in history, we need to understand how readers of that moment behaved in their reading.’ It’s a bold statement, given that most study of literary history focuses on the writing rather than the reading. But he echoes a sentiment which will be familiar to anyone who’s taken part in an undergraduate or postgraduate level creative writing course: that you can’t be a good writer if you’re not a good reader. This is why I have devoted equal time both to writing and to reading on this course. I want to help you become a better poet, and you won’t be able to do that if you’re not a good reader of poetry. 

But why bother reading poems at all? Why bother looking at paintings or reading novels or listening to music or visiting sculpture parks? Well for me, when I stand in front of a painting or a poem or a sculpture I admire, or am confused by, or even one which I despise, I know that I am not alone. I know that I am meeting another person and that they are trying to tell me something. Sometimes I don’t really understand what they’re telling me, or I might even vehemently disagree with it, but sometimes I get it, and it feels wonderful. Sometimes I look at a poem or a painting or a sculpture and it’s as if the person who made it is pointing right through it into my soul and saying yes, I see things this way too. That, I believe, is why we bother. Connection. It is why we look at art, and listen to art, (and smell art and sit on it and all other manner of ways on interacting with it) and it is why we make art too. We want to connect with the world, and for the world to connect with us. It lets us know we’re not alone. Poetry is one of the many art forms that people use to connect with the world or to get the world to connect with them. It’s really that simple. And because this course is about finding the confidence to be a poet, we will start with something simple, with poetry as connection. 

Now, before I give you new poems to connect with, I want you first to practice connecting with a poem you know well. If it’s been a while since you read much poetry, it might be one from school that you remember and can revisit – you can probably find it by Googling the title and the author. If you’re a regular poetry reader, however, you will have a book on your shelf which contains a poem that means something special to you. Go and find that poem and look at it. After you have looked at it for a while, have read through it, and have paused over certain words or phrases which stick out to you, I want you to apply the questions on the sheet ‘Questions for reading poems’ to the poem. If you’re uncertain what I mean by this, please have a look at my attempt in the document called ‘The Eagle’. Although I will be using contemporary poems for our reading throughout this article, I have chosen a favourite poem from my childhood for this exercise, so that you don’t feel embarrassed about doing the same. Have a look at it now and then answer the questions using a favourite poem of your own.

  1. How does this poem make you feel? 
  2. What particular words or phrases does the poem use which mirror the feelings that the poem stirs in you? 
  3. Is this a long poem, or a short poem? 
  4. How would you describe this poem’s layout on the page? 
  5. How does this poem’s length and layout contribute to the feelings you have about the poem? 
  6. Does this poem use rhyme, or have any words which echo the sound of each other? 
  7. How does the use of sound in this poem support the way that the poem makes you feel? (It might be helpful to read the poem aloud before you answer this question.) 
  8. What do you think the subject or theme of this poem is? 
  9. What relation does the subject or theme of this poem have to the way this poem makes you feel?