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Poetry 180: A Project by Billy Collins

How to Read a Poem Out Loud

Listen to former Poet Laureate Billy Collins talk about reading a poem.

No doubt, most of the readers will be students with little or no experience in reading poetry out loud, especially to such a large group. And we know that a poem will live or die depending on how it is read. What follows, then, are a few pointers about the oral recitation of poetry. The readers, by the way, should not read cold; they should be given their poem a few days in advance so they will have time to practice, maybe in the presence of a teacher. In addition to exposing students to the sounds of contemporary poetry, Poetry 180 can also serve as a way to improve students' abilities to communicate publicly. Here are a few basic tips:

  1. Read the poem slowly. Most adolescents speak rapidly, and a nervous reader will tend to do the same in order to get the reading over with. Reading a poem slowly is the best way to ensure that the poem will be read clearly and understood by its listeners. Learning to read a poem slowly will not just make the poem easier to hear; it will underscore the importance in poetry of each and every word. A poem cannot be read too slowly, and a good way for a reader to set an easy pace is to pause for a few seconds between the title and the poem's first line.

  2. Read in a normal, relaxed tone of voice. It is not necessary to give any of these poems a dramatic reading as if from a stage. The poems selected are mostly written in a natural, colloquial style and should be read that way. Let the words of the poem do the work. Just speak clearly and slowly.

  3. Obviously, poems come in lines, but pausing at the end of every line will create a choppy effect and interrupt the flow of the poem's sense. Readers should pause only where there is punctuation, just as you would when reading prose, only more slowly.

  4. Use a dictionary to look up unfamiliar words and hard-to-pronounce words. To read with conviction, a reader needs to know at least the dictionary sense of every word. In some cases, a reader might want to write out a word phonetically as a reminder of how it should sound. It should be emphasized that learning to read a poem out loud is a way of coming to a full understanding of that poem, perhaps a better way than writing a paper on the subject.

Your Participation

Poetry 180 has been designed to be easily implemented by your school. Of course, the success of the program ultimately depends on the cooperation of interested teachers and administrators. A meeting of such people at the beginning of the semester would help to determine what needs to be done and who is willing to do it. The program is easy to join and carries only a few responsibilities such as printing out the poems and enlisting readers.


Whoever contributes to the operation of this program has my deepest thanks. High school teachers are some of the most devoted, hardest working people in any field, and any help you can give this program deserves fervid appreciation. I am hoping that the rewards of Poetry 180 will be felt as immediately as possible and that those involved will find gratification in knowing that high school students across the country are being exposed to poetry in a unique and stimulating way.

Billy Collins
Former Poet Laureate