John Larrysson Column: How to Read a Poem Part 1 of 2

Many Hong Kong people learn English only for practical function. This includes reading manuals, medical books, business contracts and so on. This is good, but stories and poetry are optional extras. Poems are read for pleasure, they are not always practical, but you might enjoy them anyway.

How should we read poems? First slow down. Most reading we do today is fast, we try to learn as much information in as little time as possible. That is when we read for quick information. Read each word of the poem; read it aloud if you will not disturb others. (Reading slowly is also needed for more complicated technical books and manuals.)

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After you have read the poem once, decide how it is organised. The easiest place to begin reading poems is rhyming stories. Rhyme means that the ending sounds are repeated. A good example of a rhyming story is The Cremation of Sam McGee, by Robert Service. It tells of the death and funeral burning of a man named Sam McGee. The rhyming pattern is 'a a b c c b...' (The rhyming words are underlined. The letters on the right show which lines rhyme.)

Now Sam McGee a
was from Tennessee, a
where the cotton blooms and blows. b
Why he left his home c
in the South to roam c
'round the Pole, God only knows. b
He was always cold, d
but the land of gold d
seemed to hold d
him like a spell; e
Though he'd often say f
in his homely way f
that "he'd sooner live in hell." e

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Many poems, particularly the sort known as tongue twisters, depend on alliteration, where the beginning sounds are repeated. The children's poem Betty Botter, by Mother Goose repeats /b/ to make the poem work.

Betty Botter bought some butter,

"But," she said, "the butter's bitter";

Some use assonance, which is the repetition of vowel sounds. Errantry by J.R.R. Tolkien, repeats vowel sounds in sets of three. (The repeated sounds are in colour.)

He battled with the Dumbledors,

the Hummerhorns, and Honeybees,

and won the Golden Honeycomb;

and running home on sunny seas

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Also common in older poems is the use of rhythm and repeating phrases, such as in the traditional poem the Kalevala. The words in bold are emphasized and the rhythm is like a person rowing a boat. Of course long ago the song used to be sung by people rowing boats.

Fierce the battle waged against me;

But I slew the Northland hero,

Killed the host of Sariola;

Quick to arms rose Louhi's people,

All the spears and swords of Northland

Were directed at thy hero;

All of Pohya turned against me,

Turned against a single foeman."

Many lines are repeated, by writing them a slightly different way.

Send the tallest of thy servants,

Send the best of thine assistants,


Older poems often use some out of date words, such as thy and thine. If you check a dictionary you will read that they mean your. Once you understand the poem's organisation you can read it and try to make it sound right.

Some have a story teller's rhythm and others are read like songs. Many modern poems do not have such an organisation and can be read normally. However they will still create a poetic image in the reader's mind.

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by John Larrysson

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A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for more than a decade.