“How Do I Read a Poem?” with Tracy K. Smith

The following is a piece written by U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith as part of the Library of Congress Magazine’s “How Do I?” series. It is reprinted from the September–October back-to-school issue of LCM, the Library of Congress Magazine. The issue is available in its entirety online.

U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith talks with students at the Santa Fe Indian School in New Mexico. Photo by Shawn Miller.

Like a stranger in somebody else’s home, I proceed gently with a new poem, taking things in rather than trying to bend them to my own habits, tastes or expectations.

Along the way, I take stock of what I notice.

What does the poem itself teach me about how to go about reading and responding to it? What information does the title contain? What kind of expectation does it establish? How does the first line of the poem go about responding to that expectation?

Is there any effect of the visual shape of the poem? How does the poem use white space, and how do I move through the lines of the poem as a result of how they are formatted?

In addition to following the sense of the sentence, I observe lines as individual units. Which lines seem to carry the most weight in the poem? Why?

Sometimes a poem’s literal or linear meaning is less essential than the effect it produces. In addition to looking for what a poem is “saying,” I try doing the following:

Listen to the music of the poem’s language. How do the sounds of words create drama, meaning and tone?

Look at the images in the poem. From what kinds of contexts are they drawn? What do these images connote on their own and in conjunction with one another? What is the cumulative effect of the images in the poem?

Where does the transformation, turn or “discovery” take place in this poem? What changes as a result?

What does the poem cause me to notice or take new stock of? What questions does it raise?

I try to consider and feel all of the many things the poem has made me notice, and to let those things—the effects of the poem—mingle a while. I look at the title again to see how my experience of the poem affirms or changes my initial understanding of the title.

Then I read the whole poem again, a little less like a strange guest this time.

Beginning with Poetry

The following guest post, part of our “Teacher’s Corner” series, is by Rebecca Newland, a Fairfax County Public Schools Librarian and former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress. One way to show students the importance of poetry is to start sharing poems at the beginning of the school year, even perhaps on the […]

“Memory at its Core”: An Interview with Celeste Ng

Six years ago, the Poetry and Literature Center celebrated its historic 75th anniversary by introducing a host of new online features, including its Interview Series. Between 2012 and 2015, the Center’s staff, interns, and friends across the Library of Congress engaged 16 emerging and established literary writers in dynamic and thought-provoking conversation. Over the past year, with […]

Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith Launches “American Conversations”

At the end of this month, Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith will kick off her second-year project, “American Conversations: Celebrating Poems in Rural Communities,” with visits to communities around the state of Alaska. In the coming months, coordinated with Center for the Book state affiliates, she’ll also travel to rural communities in South Dakota, Maine, […]

Now Online: Five Additional “Poetry of America” Recordings

Last month, we kicked off our refreshed “Poetry of America” series with five new recordings. The series, originally launched in 2013 as a counterpart to the Library of Congress’ “Songs of America” project, comprises field recordings from contemporary American poets. Over the years, we’ve asked poets to choose a singular poem written by another American poet from […]

An Ode to Poetry at the Capitol

The following is a post by Michelle Strizever, photography and digital content specialist in the Office of Art and Archives of the U.S. House of Representatives. It originally appeared on the House History, Art & Archives blog. During a Joint Meeting honoring the bicentennial of Congress in 1989, Minority Leader Robert Michel of Illinois suggested that what Congress needed […]

Literary Treasures: Remembering Donald Hall

The following post is part of our monthly series, “Literary Treasures,” which highlights audio and video recordings drawn from the Library’s extensive online collections, including the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature. By showcasing the works and thoughts of some of the greatest poets and writers from the past 75 years, the series advances the […]