How To Understand Poetry

Understanding Poetry
Poetry of Mother Nature


I don’t remember when I started liking poetry. Probably I was born with it or was fascinated by the lyrics of Mother Nature.

When I walk down my memory lane, one image looms large and that is how much effort one of our English professors used to put into explaining the poetry of Tennyson and Wordsworth. While the latter was relatively easier to understand, the former much more complex and obviously we didn’t like the one who was more challenging.

The real challenges came my way when ‘Paradise Lost,’ an epic poem by John Milton was not taught in the class (or if it was, I must be mentally absent) and even when it was discussed, it didn’t evoke any interest!

While prose can be an effortless reading unless it is stream of consciousness writing, poetry can become quite boring if we are not familiar with its techniques and tones.

Despite the tests and trails, I continued to like poetry and slowly discovered that it is a genre par excellence. It can say a lot through literary techniques, which only an admirer of Literature can understand. I still struggle to understand some subtle messages conveyed through simple words.

I have to read my blogger friend Bela’s poems thrice to understand the undertones that appear enigmatic initially. They also inspire ideas to compose another poem.

Ambiguous ideas in a poem provide a food for thought and chisel your creative skills.

Who has the time and the inclination to read and re-read a poem in this fast-paced world? Only poetry lovers do!

Another lovely friend Sue, who is a poet and a prolific blogger of amazing eminence inspires with her poetry.

Most of my blogger friends are elaborative when they share their reflections on my post. Whenever I post a poem, I get a lukewarm response and I often wonder – is it because of poetry?

Quickly my mind hurtles back, my interactions with teenagers get refreshed, all their expressions, yawns and glances stand before me, bringing those lovely memories of hate-love relationship we had with poetry…when we would try to convince each other why poetry is good or bad and how we could understand it better.

I am not an expert but I have figured out a few ways to understand poetry.Understanding Poetry

How to understand a poem:

All readers have their own approach and interpretation but how imagery is used defines a poem. Can you read between those special words to fathom their depth?

It is better to read slowly. Stop and ponder over at the word that seems simple but abstruse.

“If you’re curious, there is always something new to be discovered in the backdrop of your daily life,” says Roy T. Bennett. Be curious. Inquisitiveness and interest are two important elements that lead to our understanding of a poem.

Poetry can’t be scanned and understood like prose as the former demands concentration, attention and gentle reading.

If you read a poem in a hurry, you would miss the real meaning. Many times words are used as metaphors.

You have to be familiar with most common literary techniques like simile, metaphor, hyperbole, personification, alliteration and assonance.

Imaginative flights of poets can’t be predicted, we have to fly with them to figure out their proficiencies.

Critical analysis of a poem reveals the nuances of its theme, undertones and other signals, which remain hidden to a scanner.

Some poems are ambiguous. Probably they relate to the poet’s past or buried memory, which he wouldn’t like to reveal yet, give a vent to his emotions through writing.

“Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.” – Leonard Cohen

Do you like poetry? Do you read a poem slowly?

Thank you for reading this. Please add your valuable reflections, they are much appreciated.

If you have liked this article, please share it at your favorite social networks.

Balroop Singh.




59 thoughts on “How To Understand Poetry

  1. This was a such a succinct breakdown on how to interpret poetry, Balroop. I would say that interpreting poetry is similar to how one interprets art. Often the reader will find meanings different than what the author/artist had in mind while creating. 🙂

    1. True Debbie, a poem can be interpreted by the reader in whatever way he feels…that is the beauty of this genre. Actually the success of a poet in ancient times often was dependent on how well the readers could interpret his poetry…some of them died paupers and were recognised to be great poets later.

  2. As you said, maybe you were indeed born to write poetry, Balroop. This was such an insightful analysis into the workings of poetry. One time I enrolled in creative writing class at university and half of this course was about poetry. I really, really struggled with this part of the subject and found it very hard with writing it 😦 But I do like reading poetry and when I do, I read it slowly, just like how I read anyway (I am a slow reader). Alliteration is my favourite technique…it always brings a smile to my face as I feel that helps with emphasising a certain part of the poem 🙂

    1. I have seen some students struggle with poetry. Whenever I would give an impromptu challenge of writing a poem in the class, there were many who would just sit blankly but some would come out with amazing pieces, bewildered at their own skills! Unless we try, most of the tasks seem difficult. Isn’t it?
      Thanks for sharing your honest thoughts, Mabel. I appreciate them.

  3. I often read your poems more than once, Balroop. The second time through will garner deeper thought. I’m not well read when it comes to poetry. Literature? Yes but not poetry from Tennyson or Milton (I’ll have to add some of these greats to my TBR). I like the way you’ve broken this down to understand poetry better. Thank you for that! Plus, I love the Leonard Cohen quote you’ve shared. I’m a huge fan of his poetry and yours!

    1. Wow! I like it Lisa and this gives me a little satisfaction that my poems do carry some depth. Thanks a ton! It is quite hard to understand those great poets without some help. So start with William Blake or Robert Frost, some of their poems are quite easy. Happy reading! 🙂

  4. Very useful Balroop — thank you. I must say, Bela (who you link to) has been quite an inspiration to me in the way she so powerfully conjures imagery and intensity of feeling through her magically evocative words. It’s a creative sensibility I don’t possess, but am pleased to say I can at least appreciate her art as a passive admirer of it. Over here in England there is quite a resurgence in poetry currently underway:

    1. Thank you dear Hariod for sharing your admiration for poetry and yes, Bela weaves her words immaculately…I envy her creativity and draw immense inspiration from her style. I have always felt that poetry enhances our creative as well as aesthetic skills. It adds a unique touch to one’s thought process.
      Thanks for sharing this link. I am pleased that poetry is staging a comeback. It reminds me of Wordsworth’s call…”Back to Nature” yet modern man kept drifting farther away!

    2. Thank you, dear Hariod, for your kind praise. If I have any talent at poetry, you excel at prose in a way that I consider unmatched. So right back atcha! ❤

  5. “Hope is the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul, / And sings the tune without the words, / And never stops at all,” mused Emily Dickinson to describe hope in a manner that even a thousand words cannot, and therein dwells the power of poetry. One of my privileges is the opportunity of reading beautiful lines that keep spinning out at regular intervals from talented poets in our circuit. I like them all as they make words dance to the silent music of thoughts.

    1. Thanks for sharing that wonderful quote Raj. You are right, a poem says a lot just within a few words…one of the reasons why poetry is so adorable. I love that expression “words dance to the silent music…” Have you ever tried to write poetry? Please share!

  6. This is so helpful, Balroop. I do read poems twice, usually. Especially the ones that spark some emotion or evoke a memory. Poetry often strikes me as personal on the part of the poet and the reader. Thanks for sharing your experience. You are a poet at heart. ❤

    1. I think all poetry is inspired from real life and then takes a flight of fantasy…how far can it go depends on the mood of the poet. Some of Coleridge’s poems are incomplete because the moment he was disturbed, he would lose his thought and couldn’t get back to it! Thanks for your kind words Diana.

  7. Sharing your thoughtful post on understanding poetry, Balroop. As for me, I adore poetry…both the reading, writing and teaching of it is a gift to be savored and shared.

  8. I sometimes find it hard to understand the poems my wife writes. Guess the reasons are many, primarily that each word has to be understood thoroughly.

    You’ve give a nice description to the mystery as it has been for me. To say something impactful in a few words is the beauty of poetry for me!

  9. I’m also one of those for whom poetry is a puzzle. I also struggle with it. So I am just not into poetry. Your tips to understand poetry is quite helpful. Will surely try it next time. 🙂

  10. I fell in love with poetry in high school. And I know I must have really liked it because my best friend gave me a huge book of poetry for my birthday. I was pleasantly surprised.

    When I lived in Thailand, I took a poetry class from my friend Sandra who is a wonderful poet. It’s true, you have to take the time with poetry, go for a walk with it, dream on it and sit with those carefully selected words. What was interesting was having someone else read your poem out loud. I miss that class!

    1. I don’t remember much of high school, probably our English teacher was more glamorous than her words but some of my college professors were very dedicated to what they taught. One of them could make poems so easy that I started loving them.
      I love that expression Lani…”go for a walk with it, dream on it and sit with those carefully selected words.” Thanks for your beautiful words.

  11. I believe you love poetry or you don’t get poetry Balroop. When you love poetry it’s like the words are talking to you a million different ways. What I like to do is reading out loud. It feels different and gives me bew ideas and images. But you are right sometimes we need to read a poem multiple times to understand it fully or just get the essence of it.
    Have a lovely week Balroop.

    1. You are right Marie…when words talk to you, it is a blissful journey, which you can enjoy the most. All poems are not that simple and therefore some require multiple reading. Thanks for sharing your thought dear friend. Stay blessed!

  12. First, I was surprised to notice you linked to my blog, how very kind of you, Balroop! And I am glad my poetry prompts expression of your own. Anyhow, thank you very kindly. And thanks to Hariod as well! Very humbling to hear these words from you both.

    As for your suggestions in reading and understanding poetry, I think they have merit:

    “Poetry can’t be scanned and understood like prose as the former demands concentration, attention and gentle reading.” Exactly true. I think many poets write from the heart, not the head. It’s the heart that expresses and the head that helps us edit the final product. So relaxing and ‘feeling’ the words evokes what it may.

    “If you read a poem in a hurry, you would miss the real meaning. Many times words are used as metaphors.” Yes. Metaphor is the poet’s stock and trade. Again if one ‘feels’ through a poem, if the poem is written at all well, a picture or sense can arise which informs the reader ‘about’ the poem. Each person can take away such very different sensations and impressions from the same words! That’s the magic of metaphor.

    “You have to be familiar with most common literary techniques like simile, metaphor, hyperbole, personification, alliteration and assonance.” This doesn’t hurt, but I don’t think it’s critical – just my opinion.

    “Imaginative flights of poets can’t be predicted, we have to fly with them to figure out their proficiencies.” Oh, this is rich! And lovely.

    “Critical analysis of a poem reveals the nuances of its theme, undertones and other signals, which remain hidden to a scanner.” This can be valuable, though I’d like to believe those reading my poetry first ‘feel’ it.

    “Some poems are ambiguous. Probably they relate to the poet’s past or buried memory, which he wouldn’t like to reveal yet, give a vent to his emotions through writing.” You definitely have a point here, Balroop. I used to do this quite a lot in my earlier days of writing poetry. It’s a great way to vent by disguising the players, as it were. But ultimately it may confuse the reader, so I take that analytic part of myself and try to be as clear as possible.

    Anyhow, Mahalo again, and I look forward to reading more of your own poetic offerings!

    With Aloha, Bela

    1. Dear Bela, many thanks for such beautiful reflections on this post and they bear a testimony to how much of a poet you are! Your point by point analysis has added so much value to this post. I appreciate your insights.
      Poets seem to have a different heart 🙂 as they are more sensitive, observant and intuitive. Even a subtle sound or sight of nature can inspire them. even the movement of clouds and their merging into each other when some are dark and others white send some special vibrations into my heart.
      Thank you for being such an awesome friend and poet. Your words exude warmth. Love and hugs.

      1. Yes, we both have poet’s hearts, I think. I’m so happy we’re connected, and thank you again for your kind words and link. It’s very much appreciated. Love and hugs right back! ❤

  13. I’ve always loved poetry. When I was in the classroom, it would be the one time students could really get into rereading a text. Too often, readers are like you read something once and it’s done. Either you get the point or you don’t. But rich poetry, like all rich writing, bears repeated readings.

    1. Thank you Jeri for taking time to share your view…my thoughts are with you, my wishes also for your wellbeing. Teachers tend to read and reread till they can see those eyes before them brighten with understanding. 🙂

  14. Dear Balroop, I think most of us when we were first introduced to poetry in our school years yawned at the prospect .. Maybe it was the type of poetry we first were introduced to.. I remember my Granddad reciting some of Longfellow’s
    “The Song of Hiawatha”… And not really understanding it.. It wasn’t until years later re-reading the words the story of it unfolded.
    This is why it often takes me days to reply to peoples comments as I revisit their blogs, some who write wonderful articles and others who write beautiful poetry.. Like you, I love to re read, digest and try to see from which angle it was written as I try to get inside the authors mind..
    I always find it a huge compliment when someone says they read my poems twice.. Because it means they were digesting the content to understand it.. and not just giving a flip remark of its lovely.. 🙂
    I agree with you about Bela’s own poetry.. And I class your own among this of deserving a second read..
    I do not know if the Sue mentioned was I or not, but I will take it as an enormous Honour.. as there are many Sue’s out in blog land who write beautifully.

    Loved reading your thoughts on Poetry Balroop 🙂
    Hugs and Much Love xxx

    1. I agree with you dear Sue, understanding poetry at a young age can be quite hard and if the one reading it doesn’t tell the meaning, our mind wanders off very easily.
      I must apologise Sue that I mentioned your name but didn’t link it to your blog, most probably I didn’t pay attention and later thought it is too late. Your poetry is highly inspiring dear friend. I like to read poetry twice or thrice because that is how we can understand all the aspects of words and ideas. I am glad that you too think so!
      Thank you for sharing your reflections Sue, much appreciated. 🙂 Stay blessed and keep inspiring.

      1. I feel very blessed and honoured dear Balroop that you thought my poetry good enough to mention.. I think this is why I often take so long in getting around all those whom I enjoy following, I spend far too much time digesting and commenting..
        But then this is why I so love Blog Land.. For it allows our minds to join together and expand.. As we unify and melt our ideas, Loves, and arts into one place where the collective can pause, ponder and perceive another’s point of view
        I am never disappointed when I visit your blog Balroop.. For I always feel your heart, and come away feeling Blessed for knowing you.. 💕💓💖💕

  15. I love poetry. The ability to convey a sea-full-emotions in a bucket-full-words. You need to understand why a poet uses a specific word. Why rain symbolizes tears? How Fall and Spring are used for death and life? Poetry, as you’ve said, should be read with love and patience. You can read a sonnet. You have to recite it to get a feel of it.

    As a wannabe poet, I loved this post.

    1. You are a poet Saru…I love that meaningful micro poetry you share, dripping with love and emotion. When we can convey so much just through two lines what is the need to go into details and spoil the whole fun 🙂
      Thanks for a poetic response!

  16. I love this quote by Bennett: “If you’re curious, there is always something new to be discovered in the backdrop of your daily life.” I had not heard it before, but I will remember it. Thanks for sharing.

    Most people online only know me as a blogger and prose writer. But I’ve written and enjoyed poetry since before anyone taught me what it really was.

    I look at poetry much like music (I’m also a singer/songwriter and composer). There are people who like certain kinds of music and not others. It’s always amusing when I hear someone try to convince another person of why everyone should like their own favorite music artist or genre (say, Country). They explain it passionately and give example after example, and the listener says, “I get how much you like it … but I still just don’t like Country.” And that’s OK.

    Likewise, there are people who like certain types of writing and not others — and that’s OK, too.

    Then there are also people who “like” music and bang their hands on the dashboard while it plays; but they don’t “get it” on the level that a songwriter or music producer would. When I listen to music, part of me hears it on the whole. But part of me is also naturally deconstructing it: listing the instruments that were used, the vocal techniques that worked, whether it was Auto-Tuned, what effects were used, etc. And part of me is listening and thinking, “That is a 1 – 4 – 5 structure with a relative minor added in, where I wish they’d used the minor 2 and 3 more often or used a more dissonant color to that chording.”

    Is the listener who is blissfully bobbing her head to the rhythm wrong? Am I more right because I’m inclined to analyze it more deeply? Often, I’ll hear a song and think, “That was really cliche and insipid along with being musically bland” … while my mom is getting teary over it (a good example would be the song “The Christmas Shoes” by NewSong). I think neither is right or wrong. It’s just different. We aren’t all musicians, so music moves us on different levels and for different reasons.

    As I said, poetry is really a form of music. And not everyone “gets it,” enjoys “the greats” (any more than I enjoy every “great” musician throughout time), or is drawn to the same types. Maybe someone hates Tennyson but has been genuinely moved by Maya Angelou.

    In the end, I encourage people to listen, read, think … and appreciate … what might make a poem (or book, or song, or piece of art, or bird call, or “perfect wave”) meaningful, even if, in the end, they walk away thinking, “… but I still don’t personally get it or enjoy it all that much.”

  17. Welcome to Emotional Shadows Erik…at last the influence worked! 🙂
    I like the way you have shared your heart-felt emotions about poetry and music and coming from you, they seem special because very few men really mention their love for both – music and poetry. I absolutely agree that both are the same, one would be incomplete without the other. Any successful and soulful song touches our heart only when it has meaningful lyrics and symphony.
    Having said that, I must add that music sits at a little higher pedestal because good music can reach us even when we don’t understand the language, as Wordsworth has rightly observed in one of his poems:
    “Whate’er the theme, the Maiden sang
    As if her song could have no ending;
    I saw her singing at her work,
    And o’er the sickle bending;—
    I listened, motionless and still;
    And, as I mounted up the hill,
    The music in my heart I bore,
    Long after it was heard no more.”

  18. This is a fabulous article, Balroop. You clearly have a great depth of knowledge with poetry which is admirable. As for your experience with Milton, mine was quite the opposite. I was completely captivated by Paradise Lost.

    1. Thanks Kev! Sorry for such a late response as I have just retrieved your comment from spam! I couldn’t develop interest in Milton as a student due to lack of proper guidance, probably. Paradise Lost is a wonderful epic.

  19. I like SOME poetry. I don’t think we can say ‘we like poetry’ just like we can’t say ‘we like fiction.’ Some fiction I can’t stand! I don’t like horror stories, or books with gratuitous violence or sex. I won’t read a book that is belittles the reader, or a character. That said, I swallow a good book like it’s a cup of perfect hot chocolate topped with marshmallows. 🙂 So with poetry. I studied poetry in graduate school and truly did not like the poets who I had to spend hours studying about their life, to understand the lines in their poem. But give me a Walt Whitman poem (like Leaves of Grass) and I will spend hours savoring the words and the evocative thoughts the poem brings to me. Each day, I can gain something different from one of his poems. Same with many contemporary poets. I like YOUR poetry, Balroop. xo

  20. Thank you dear Pam for such a candid confession! I also avoid horror stories and shows, which revisit me in my dreams. The society in which I was raised never openly discussed sex and so I could never creep out of the closets in which we were encouraged to dwell to read or enjoy any such books.
    I love your idea of pleasant books…happens to be my sentiment too though I don’t like marshmallows.
    I haven’t read much of Walt Whitman as I studied British poets, I must check ‘Leaves Of Grass.’ Thanks for the mention.

  21. For me, a poem is a song. If a poem touches me deeply, my heart sings. When I write a song, I carefully craft it as I would a poem ~ the tempo and sound of the music must match the meter and tone of the words. That being said, I’m not drawn to poetry like I’m drawn to songs. Music stirs me more than words alone. But a well-crafted, non-ambiguous poem moves me to hear its unsung music, as did your The Escape From #Deep. Hugs, dear Balroop ♥

  22. You are right Tina, some lyrical poems are more like songs, with perfect rhyming scheme. Thanks for sharing your love for poetry and music. Hugs back to you 🙂

  23. Poetry, as you’ve said, needs a bit of tenderness while reading. One should try to understand the essence of the words shared by the poet. As a person who tries and loves to write poetry, I always try to pour maximum impact with minimum words. And, also, a poetry can have more than one interpretation depending on the reader’s mindset. there also lies the mystic nature of poetry.

    Wonderful post on poetry, Balroop, just loved it… 🙂

  24. Hi Balroop, appreciate the way you have detaileded your approach to understanding poetry.
    Poems have the magical power to stir emotions. The poems that had the maximum impact on me were the ones that I had read in school. These were simply written, rhythmic, inspiring, and emotive such as Casabianca, Where the mind is without fear, Bangle sellers, Khhob ladi mardani. I loved to recite them over and over again, and these have stayed on with me. Now, I like the layered ones too but only the ones where I understand the meaning. 🙂

  25. Thank you for sharing, Balroop. It’s funny, I literally just had a discussion with my mother about interpreting poetry before making my most recent post. If an author over analyzes or applies drastic changes to a poem for the sake of easing interpretation…the final result may no longer be poetry. I write poetry as I feel it flow, without restrictions. My only hope is that others may read, enjoy, and consider my work to be true poetry 🙂.

    1. I appreciate your reflections Raymond. Welcome to Emotional Shadows, where all emotions are cared for! I agree with you…a poet should not make changes to poetry and let his thoughts flow… but at the same time, beginners need some guidance how to approach a poem if they want to understand it. All readers don’t feel comfortable with this genre.

  26. Wow, this is one amazing and an informative article. Poetry is a way of expression par excellence. It is indeed very important to read in between the lines in order to understand a poem. One thing I find extremely intriguing as a Poet is, that the poems are always open to interpretation in different ways. I find peace in writing as well and I am glad I stumbled upon this post of yours. 🙂 Please go through my poems too 🙂 I would love to get a feedback from you. 🙂

  27. I always felt that my poetry was artwork, not me an artist, and was open to the readers interpretation. By using imagery to evoke feelings I am able to promote themes that readers can relate to their personal lives. So although each reader may have different interpretations, their subconscious should register the same emotion. I also think sometimes you have to help them along the way with titles or cliche foundations or your thematic and or metaphorical value is lost. I just recently just started trying btw

    1. Welcome to Emotional Shadows, where emotions flow freely. Thanks for standing by to share your thoughts about poetry. Each reader is respected as an honoured guest here. 🙂

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