“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.

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