There’s no way around it – poetry exercises can be tough to master. Whether you’re reading a poem to yourself or preparing to recite a poem in front of an audience, understanding a poem takes dedication, a wide knowledge of poetic devices, and an appreciation for imagery, rhythm, and sometimes rhymes.

Below are some tips to help improve your poetry reading and speaking skills, although the list is by no means comprehensive. If you’re ever in search of more tips and tricks, why not reach out to a Superprof poetry tutor today to see how they can help you?

A pencil with pencil shavings on top of an open notepad. Writing down your thoughts can help when reading a poem.
There are a few tips that coming in handy when learning how to read poetry. (Image: CC0 1.0, George Hodan, Public Domain Pictures)

How To Read A Poem

Before reciting a poem, you should have an intrinsic understanding of that poem. This comes through reading the work and familiarising yourself with every literary aspect of it.

Poems can sometimes be shunned or labelled too difficult by virtue of the fact that their meaning can be hard to decipher. While some poems are not as easy as others to understand, by adopting particular techniques and approaches to a poetry reading, you’ll find that you’ll quickly develop your poetry analysis skills, which will help you get to a heart of a poem quicker.

When you’ve selected a poem that you might like to recite, then it may be worthwhile to follow a few steps before diving in and reading the poem. Whether that poem is by a Poet Laureate, is a piece of contemporary poetry, a haiku, stanza, or ballad, these steps should help unlock the meaning behind the prose.

Firstly, skim through the poem, and try to identify the following:

  • Are there any words within the poem that you don’t recognise? If so, look up their meaning and writing on the poem note their meaning;
  • What kind of poem is it? This may help identify what the poem's ultimate meaning could be (for example, sonnets are often about love); and
  • Where is the punctuation in the poem? Identifying where full-stops are can give an indication of how the poem should flow, and where different ideas are grouped within the work.

Once you’ve completed the above, then dive in and read through the poem. Don’t be put off if you struggle with the poem on your first reading – reading poetry is a skill that needs to be developed, and not all poems have a clear meaning that is easy to decipher. On a first read, the most important thing is to familiarise yourself with the work, try to get a sense of the poem’s meaning if possible, and get a feel of how the poem flows.

After your initial reading, keep going back through the poem and try to unlock the poem’s secrets gradually. Consider the poetic devices that have been used and what meaning and imagery they help to convey.

Also think about the voice of the poem, and who the poem may have been written for, as this may give some further indication of the poem’s meaning. Context is also important in poetry – was the poem written at a particular point during the poet’s life, perhaps during a time of great happiness or struggle? Or was a significant world event taking place at the time the poem was written?

Finally, make sure to read the poem aloud – even if you only speak quietly to yourself at first. A poem’s true impact is often revealed when spoken, and it’s great practice for when the time comes to recite poetry in front of an audience.

A man in a suit with the words self-confidence at the bottom of the image, with an orange swirl behind the man. Self-confidence is key to poetry recital.
Confidence is key when reciting a poem. (Image: CC0 1.0, geralt, Pixabay)

Reciting A Poem

Reciting a poem in front of an audience can seem like a daunting task – all eyes are on you to bring a poem to life, and understandably, you can feel a lot of pressure to put on a good performance.

However, there are a few techniques you can employ to make sure you get the most out of your performance.

Remember to breathe!

It sounds like obvious advice, but having your breathing under control can really make a difference when reciting poetry. Often, in any form of public speaking, people are nervous and so speak faster than they usually do. This, understandably, doesn’t make for a good poetry recital, as you want people to hear you enunciate and convey the meaning of the poem’s words, as they were meant to be spoken aloud.

Just try and take your time when reciting, and make sure to put emphasis on any natural brakes in the poem – for example, when a full stop appears.

Be confident

Another key pointer for any public speaking event is to project confidence while you’re speaking. Having good posture, minimal fidgeting, and speaking clearly and loudly enough for the room to hear you are all great ways to help engage the audience and leave them wanting to hear what you have to say.

Know your poem inside out

Your job during a recital is to project the essence of the poem to your audience. To do this, you’ll need to know your poem word for word, and ideally, have an indication of how the poet would have liked their work to be performed. Is the poem frantic, desperate, urgent, or calm, paced, and quiet? By reading and understanding your poem, you’ll have a better chance of conveying its true meaning to the audience.

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Other useful tips for poetry recital include:

  • If possible, find a poem that speaks to you. Having a poem you’re interested in will give you extra motivation to do the poem justice during a recital, whether that poem is by Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Sylvia Plath, or another poet;
  • Try to avoid speaking in a monotone way during your recital; and
  • Try to minimise excessive gestures – the audience usually wants to hear your words, not actions.

Crucially, remember that reciting poetry can be a daunting experience, but with practice and experience, it should get easier. Every poem is different as well, which means that every recital will take on its own characteristics. This makes poetry recital a really interesting art form and one that many enjoy.

If you’d like to get any more tips on how to improve your poetry recitals, how to publish your poetry or want further advice about how best to read and interpret poems, you can also look at hiring an English tutor with a poetry background. Superprof, for example, has a range of tutors with experience in poetry tuition that would be happy to hear a run-through of an upcoming recital and provide feedback, or provide suggestions of which poems you might enjoy studying.

Superprof tutors offer a range of tuition formats, from online poetry course to a one to one session or group workshops, so it’s a case of searching for a tutor that’s right for you.

Performance poetry is an increasingly popular type of poetry.
Performance poetry is becoming more and more popular. (Image: CC0 1.0, Modman, Pixabay)

Performance Poetry

Performance, also known as spoken word, poetry has, in one form or another, been around for hundreds of years, but recently it has seen a resurgence in popularity.

Unlike traditional poetry recitals, where the speaker recites words of a written poetic work, performance poetry focuses on the spoken word and the art of performance.

In this way, it harks back to the initial roots of poetry, where poets would rely on the spoken word to tell tales that could then be shared with others and passed down through word of mouth.

If you’re looking at getting into performance poetry, or want to hone your craft, then there are plenty of avenues where you can get experience, including an increasing number of open mic nights that cater to performance poetry. Below are also some tips on how to get the most out of your performance.

  • Try and be as authentic as you can be – performance poetry often, but not always, features an element of social or political critique. Whatever subject your poem is about, make sure it is one that speaks to you – your performance will be all the better for it;
  • Keep an eye on the clock – it’s likely that your most effective pieces will be your shorter ones. Although no-one is suggesting you confine your works to thirty seconds, having a piece that’s under five minutes should give you enough time to perform effectively, while still retaining the interest of your audience; and
  • Think about your performance – performance poetry, by its nature, has an element of drama in it. Although you shouldn’t try to turn your piece into a short dramatic sketch, think about the ways you could move or interact with the stage to bring your poem to life.

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Of course, there are other tips out there that can help improve your performance. For example, watching other performance or slam poets is a great way to see how others practice their craft and could give you some inspiration for your next work.

If you’d like to find out more about performance poetry, or poetry in general, then you can also speak to a Superprof tutor today to learn more about common poetic techniques and devices that help poems to shine. If you type in your postcode and the subject you’d like to learn more about, Superprof can match you with a range of tutors in your local area, as well as tutors that are happy to offer remote tutoring.

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