How To Read a Poem Out Loud
Listen to former Poet Laureate Billy Collins
talk about reading a poem.
No doubt, most of the readers will be students with
little or no experience in reading poetry out loud, especially to
such a large group. And we know that a poem will live or die depending
on how it is read. What follows, then, are a few pointers about
the oral recitation of poetry. The readers, by the way, should not
read cold; they should be given their poem a few days in advance
so they will have time to practice, maybe in the presence of a teacher.
In addition to exposing students to the sounds of contemporary poetry,
Poetry 180 can also serve as
a way to improve students' abilities to communicate publicly. Here
are a few basic tips:
Read the poem slowly. Most
adolescents speak rapidly, and a
nervous reader will tend to do the same
in order to get the reading over with.
Reading a poem slowly is the best way
to ensure that the poem will be read
clearly and understood by its
listeners. Learning to read a poem
slowly will not just make the poem
easier to hear; it will underscore the
importance in poetry of each and every
word. A poem cannot be read too
slowly, and a good way for a reader to
set an easy pace is to pause for a few
seconds between the title and the
poem's first line.
Read in a normal, relaxed tone of
voice. It is not necessary to give any
of these poems a dramatic reading as if
from a stage. The poems selected are
mostly written in a natural, colloquial
style and should be read that way. Let
the words of the poem do the work.
Just speak clearly and slowly.
Obviously, poems come in lines,
but pausing at the end of every line
will create a choppy effect and
interrupt the flow of the poem's sense.
Readers should pause only where there
is punctuation, just as you would when
reading prose, only more slowly.
Use a dictionary to look up
unfamiliar words and hard-to-pronounce
words. To read with conviction, a
reader needs to know at least the
dictionary sense of every word. In
some cases, a reader might want to
write out a word phonetically as a
reminder of how it should sound. It
should be emphasized that learning to
read a poem out loud is a way of coming
to a full understanding of that poem,
perhaps a better way than writing a
paper on the subject.
Poetry 180 has been designed to be
easily implemented by your school. Of
course, the success of the program
ultimately depends on the cooperation
of interested teachers and
administrators. A meeting of such
people at the beginning of the semester
would help to determine what needs to
be done and who is willing to do it.
The program is easy to join and carries
only a few responsibilities such as
printing out the poems and enlisting
Whoever contributes to the operation of
this program has my deepest thanks.
High school teachers are some of the
most devoted, hardest working people in
any field, and any help you can give
this program deserves fervid
appreciation. I am hoping that the
rewards of Poetry 180 will be felt as
immediately as possible and that those
involved will find gratification in
knowing that high school students
across the country are being exposed to
poetry in a unique and stimulating way.
Former Poet Laureate
The Library of Congress
Contact Us (2/19/2004)