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Reading Poetry Like a Professor

I had Billy Collin’s warning about some classes in “Introduction to Poetry” when I encountered an article titled “How to read poetry like a professor.”

It turns out that the author of the piece, Thomas Foster, is a retired professor of literature who has made a side career by writing instructive books about how we ought to read. (He’s not the old professor illustrated above.)

He has published How to Read Literature Like a Professor, How to Read Novels Like a Professor, Twenty-five Books that Shaped America, Reading the Silver Screen and now How to Read Poetry Like a Professor.

Foster, like many of us, couldn’t quite get a “handle” on poetry in elementary school. But, as a teenager, he encountered with the poems of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and it turned around how he read poems.

Billy Collins shares that Ferlinghetti connection. In Collins’ poem “The Trouble with Poetry,” he says that reading poetry makes him want to write poetry and fills him with a “longing to steal.”

And what an unmerry band of thieves we are,
cut-purses, common shoplifters,
I thought to myself
as a cold wave swirled around my feet
and the lighthouse moved its megaphone over the sea,
which is an image I stole directly
from Lawrence Ferlinghetti —
to be perfectly honest for a moment —

the bicycling poet of San Francisco
whose little amusement park of a book
I carried in a side pocket of my uniform
up and down the treacherous halls of high school.

Foster’s article is taken from his latest how-to-read book which, thankfully, does not suggest (as Collins warned):

tie the poem to a chair with rope 
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Foster’s suggestions include some good basic advice:

  • Read what’s actually in front of you. Make a quite literal first reading.
  • Read all the words. Each word. No skimming. He feels students often whiz past a keyword.
  • On a second reading, get into the way things are assembled on the page. He advises to read the sentences, not the lines. That means you should also 
  • obey all punctuation, including its absence. No punctuation at the end of the line? Keep that very brief pause but don’t drop the voice as if the sentence is over. A comma, acts as all commas – pause – and a period, semicolon, a question mark and even a dash is meant as a stop.
  • I agree with him that at least one time you should read the poem aloud. This may not work in the library or coffee shop, but when alone or with an open group, do so. Even poems  “written for the page” reveal things when heard. That’s one reason why I like audiobooks.
  • Do multiple readings of the poem. Unlike reading a novel, it is easy and to reread a poem right after the first cold reading.
  • Look up the odd words or allusions. Some poetry, especially the older classics, contain references and vocabulary that was challenging back in their own time for the less educated and is challenging today for even the educated. Even the more accessible modern poetry sometimes makes reference to a person or place that would be helpful to know a bit more about to understand the poem fully.

I am not so sure that this is so much how to read “like a professor” as much as it is simply how to read a poem. But it is instructive in correcting some of the ways that some students might misread a poem.

Painting via Wikimedia & the Brooklyn Museum of Professor William H. Goodyear by Wilford S. Conrow