How to Read a Poem Out Loud

1. Limit the patter

Poet [name redacted] is famous for introducing his poems by telling a story that takes ten times as long to tell as it does to read the poem. You can give me a bit of info that will help me understand the poem. But reading a poem is like telling a joke: set it up without telling me the punch line.

2. Read slowly

Read like you enjoy the words on the page. But don’t stretch it out so much that each word loses any relation to the next. Varying the speed of your reading can be a good tactic.


Seriously, folks, you’re driving me to all caps.

4. Don’t touch your hair or face while reading.

Watching someone constantly flipping her hair out of her face is distracting. As is watching someone scratch his face or, god forbid, take a drink of water in the middle of a poem. Put your hair back. Don’t twitch out of nervousness. Make sure you’re comfortable with your face cream and the cut of your shirt, and try to stay hydrated.

5. Don’t apologize or run down yourself or your work.

Poets walk the thin edge of obsolescence every day. Don’t give your audience one more reason to check their facebook status on their phone. Be a performer. Present with confidence and personality. You don’t have to believe in yourself, but believe in your work.

What am I forgetting?

7 responses to “How to Read a Poem Out Loud

  1. Hands down (coming from someone who appears to be conducting an orchestra when speaking). Don’t give people an excuse not to listen.

    We went to see W.S. Merwin (one of my husband’s favorites) in an old church in Chicago a few years back and he was an amazing reader. Poetry (and the getting of poetry, if you will) is difficult for me, but listening to him…it was the most simple thing in the world. I loved everything about that man.

    • I used to tell my mom (who claimed to hate poetry but did a really good job trying to “get” me and my work) that you’re not going to understand a poem you heard read the first time, so you just sit back and grasp at the images that work for you. I guess the same is true when you’re reading a poem, you just get more time to figure it out.

      If you ever get a chance to hear Patricia Smith, you should go! She’s my favorite reader so far, although Seamus Heaney ain’t so shabby either.

      Have you thought about a new career in conducting?

  2. From a commenter with technical difficulties:

    I had a great-aunt who once said something useful to this conversation. It wasn’t about poetry, but, what the hey?, it works here too. “If it isn’t good enough to present, don’t present it. If you do present it, don’t apologise for it.” That work?

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