How to Appreciate Poetry: A Word Nerd’s Guide

Appreicating PoetryI recently stayed up until two am to watch a movie with my son.

Please note that the days of me being awake at two am by choice ended sometime in the late 1990s.  I do not count nursing a baby or cleaning vomit soaked sheets in the “by choice” category.

So this must have been an awesome movie, right?

Dead Poet’s Society tells the story of a passionate teacher who uses unorthodox methods to get prep school boys excited about poetry.  John Keating inspires his students with Emerson,carpe diem”, and barbaric yawps.

On the first day of class, Mr. Keating, played by the always entertaining Robin Williams, has his students read an essay about analyzing poetry.  The essay actually suggests that one could graph a poem based on its importance and the quality of its craftsmanship.

dead poetsA graph.

Mr. Keating commands his students rip the essay out of their textbooks.

Like Mr. Keating, I hope to inspire excitement about poetry.  There’s no right or wrong (or graphing) with poems;  please don’t let cryptic lines and complicated rhythms intimidate you.  Just find a poem that looks interesting, settle into a comfortable spot to read, and think about these things.


Reading poems aloud is the best way to catch the musical qualities of words woven together.  When you read a poem, listen for:

  • Rhythm – can you find a pattern?  Count the syllables, note the stresses.  Some poems are written to fit specific structural requirements.  For example,

A line of iambic pentameter has ten syllables in a light stress, heavy stress pattern, such as:

No longer mourn for me when I am dead (Shakespeare sonnet # 71)

A line of trochee has the opposite pattern, first heavy then light stress

Double double toil and trouble (Shakespeare, Macbeth)

Anapest is a pattern of three syllables with two light and the last heavy.

For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams (Edgar Allen Poe, Annabel Lee)

  •  Rhyme – again, can you find a pattern?  Do the rhymes occur in adjacent lines or in every other line?  Does the rhyme carry significance?  Or is the poem written in free verse, without any rhymes?
  • Special effects– look for literary devices that influence the sound of the poem, such as

Alliteration – repetition of initial consonant sounds in a string of words

fair flower falling from the tree

Onomatopoeia – words that imitate sounds

buzz, crash, snap


Poems condense profound meaning into a few lines of words, and poets use figurative language to build a bridge of understanding for readers.  Some common literary devices include:

  • Metaphor – makes an implicit or implied comparison between two dissimilar things

Bill is my rock during difficult times.

Bill isn’t actually a rock, but the metaphor implies that he is sturdy and strong

  • Simile –makes a direct comparison between two things by using  “like” or “as”

She’s as stubborn as a bull.

  • Personification – giving human characteristics to a thing, an idea or an animal.  Markus Zusak is a master of this in his often poetic prose in The Book Thief and I Am the Messenger.

Fear slipped into the room and wrapped itself around me.

 poetry handbookPoetry Resources

I can’t cover everything in this post, but I hope you’re intrigued.  For more information about poetry and literary devices, or to find some great poems, check out:

A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver

Poems to Learn by Heart by Caroline Kennedy

The Poetry Foundation Website 

 What do you use to help you understand poetry?  Who are some of your favorite poets?  Have you seen Dead Poets Society

Thanks for stopping by!


Julia Tomiak

I believe in the power of words to improve our lives, and I help people find interesting words to read. Find me on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, Pinterest, and Google+. Member of SCBWI and


  1. My days of staying up til 2 AM are a thing of the past, too. But staying up with your son to watch Dead Poet’s Society is worth the sleep deprivation for sure! What a great movie! Thanks for the great tips about poetry. I think one of the best things we can do is keep reading and trying different kinds of poetry. If one poet’s style doesn’t connect with you, try something different.

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