How to Get Into Poetry (5 Tips From a Former Barbarian)

Where do you begin with studying poetry by yourself? 

How do you break into such an intimidating subject as a total beginner? 

Today I’ll give you four tips that helped me get into poetry and become someone who, with some patience and effort, is able to read and appreciate most poems. 

First, take a walk with me down my hall of failures, will you? 

My Struggle to Get Into Poetry

As a writer, I’m rather ashamed to admit this, but it took me some time and effort to get into poetry. 

I really struggled in my first attempts to read poetry consistently and fruitfully.

When it came to poetry, I was a barbarian: 

Image via Gioele Fazzeri

This time last year, I had accumulated 6 poetry anthologies. They were strewn about my apartment like corpses, victims of my inability to stick with it. I’d read no more than a handful of poems in each. 

There was one in my backpack called “100 Best Poems of American Literature,” and every time I came across it I could envision the disappointed Longfellow, Dickinson, and most frightening of all, Poe, shaking their heads at me. 

The poetry anthologies strayed around my house represented failed attempts, my literary incompetence. 

I would read a poem a day for a week straight and then fall out of the habit and go back to my novels and other books. 

Then a few months later I’d think, “Hey dumbass, what happened to your poetry appreciation goal? You call yourself a writer? John Gardner said all first-rate writers had studied at least some poetry. You uncultured bourgeois scum!” 

Then I’d go run to a bookstore and buy a new anthology and repeat the same process, thinking this would be the one. Of course, it wasn’t, until I had my breakthrough. 

This past summer, I finally decided a poetry course wasn’t a sign of weakness, but perhaps a right of passage for students of poetry.   

That was the catalyst, but I did some other things as well. 

Here is what worked for me to start self-learning poetry as a beginner: 

1. Take an Online Poetry Course

The online course I found helpful for getting into poetry was Modern & Contemporary American Poetry

Instead of being lectures, the class recordings are student discussions with the professor about a poem. 

Each student is given a piece of a famous poem to analyze and interpret. When it’s their turn, they propose their ideas, and then the class debates and discusses it. 

As a viewer, the experience can be somewhat like watching a group of detectives in a good mystery movie, slowly working towards something they can all agree on as the overall meaning of the poem. 

It gave me an intense appreciation not only for the creative reading skills that poetry study evidently cultivates in its students, but also for the intentionality of the great poets. 

I didn’t finish the course. In all honesty I only did the Emily Dickinson section. I stopped because I felt like I had gotten what I needed: an idea of what reading poetry was supposed to look like. 

Or maybe this is a better way of putting it: I understood that to read a poem well and get the wisdom and beauty and emotions it offers, you really have to take your time with it, and read it more than once, and ponder. 

This principle was later confirmed for me when I read If You Want to Write by Barbara Ueland, a great book on creative writing, where I learned that she would go on walks and turn over a single line or stanza from a poem in her head during her walk, like someone sucking on a tootsie pop. 

Anyway, that course did a lot for me and I should probably go back to it and finish it. 

Here’s something else that helped me understand how to read a poem: 

2. Watch This YouTube Video on Reading Poetry

I stumbled across a video called How to Read (and Even Enjoy) Poetry, by a Youtuber called Writing With Andrew.

It reminded me that, with most poems, you don’t have to analyze them to derive joy from them; you can simply close your eyes and imagine the images the poet is trying to depict, and escape into them. 

This is especially nice for nature poems, like those by Wordsworth or Frost. 

He’ll explain it better than me. Here’s the video:

As with all art, it’s best to let the poem work on your imagination before you start working on it with your intellect. That’s what this video gave me. 

If you want another good video on how to get into reading poetry, check out Benjamin Mcevoy’s:

The next and final tip has also been a big help in my journey to teach myself to appreciate and understand poetry. 

3. Find Your Gateway Poet

Find a poet whose poems consistently resonate with you. 

The best way to do this is by trying a bunch of different poets and then identifying the one who you like the most. 

You could also look for poets who write about things you’re interested in and start from there.

For instance, you could google “nature poets” or “poets who write about loss” or “romantic poets” and then sample the poets who pop up. 

Once you’ve found the poet, buy a collection of their poems, and read the whole thing.

My gateway poet was Emily Dickinson. Here’s a great collection of her poems

Her poems are short, clever, and punchy and can be enjoyed at a superficial level, while also being endlessly deep. 

4. Try to Read One Poem Per Day

To form habits you have to start with something easy. One poem per day seems like a good starting point for most. 

That should take about 2-10 minutes depending on the poem’s complexity and the day’s brain fog forecast. 

I’m planning on doing something like this in the Fall of my 2024 self-education curriculum, where I’ll be taking Yale’s Modern Poetry course. 

5. Don’t Worry About Understanding Everything 

Don’t try to be so perfect in your reading. It’ll only make you afraid to read the poems. 

You’ll say, “I’m feeling neither as alert as a fighter pilot nor as sensitive as a poet, so why try to read a poem? I won’t be able to read it perfectly.” 

This has happened to me many times. 

I call it reading perfectionism (are you suffering from it?). It’s related to what Steven Pressfield calls resistance in his book The War of Art

Anyway, just go read the poem if you start to hear these self-limiting thoughts. Action is the best antidote to doubt. 

Odds are, even if you read at your most exhausted and insensitive, you’ll get at least one strong image, feeling, or idea from the poem, and when you’re dealing with great art, that’s worth a lot. 

Plus, you’ll practice being the type of person who does stuff even when they know they might suck, which the universe, in a sick sort of way, seems to almost find humorous and thus reward, like we’re its jesters or something. 

Breaking Into Poetry as a Beginner

In sum, if you’re struggling to get into poetry, try taking an online course like Coursera’s Modern and Contemporary Poetry. It helped me understand how to approach poems. 

Then watch some YouTube videos on how to read a poem. Next, find your gateway poet and read all they’ve written, perhaps at a rate of one poem per day, without worrying about understanding everything. 

Do this and you should be able to go off and appreciate and understand all types of poems. 

If you liked this, maybe you’ll also like my 11-step guide for self-studying English Literature

There you’ll find a path to become well-educated in not only poems, but also the great novels, plays, and short stories of the English language. 


After graduating college with an econ degree I realized I was still anything but well-educated. Over the last 4 years, I've been trying to fix that, autodidact-mode — by reading books and engaging in self-directed study across multiple subjects. On this blog, my goal is to share my learnings and help others get a well-rounded education outside of school. Education, after all, is a lifelong process, one well worth the investment.

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