[Writing & Craft, Poetry]

How to Read a Poem Aloud

Today’s guest poetry poster is Marilyn Singer.

Mirror, Mirror

Marilyn writes:

It’s no secret that I believe that children’s poetry should be heard as well as seen. To that end, Barbara Genco, editor at Library Journal,  and I organized the ALSC Poetry Blast, a reading by children’s poets, first held at the American Library Association annual conference in 2003.  Since that time, the Blast has spawned numerous offspring throughout the country, most notably Sylvia Vardell’s Poetry Round-Up at TLA.

I love reading my own poetry aloud—at the Blast and in other venues.  Recently, I got the chance to reach a wider audience by recording Mirror Mirror with Joe Morton, a fabulous actor and friend, as an audio book for Live Oak Media. For those who aren’t familiar with my book, published by Dutton and illustrated by Josée Masse,  it is a collection of poems based on fairy tales.  All of these poems are reversos.  A reverso consists of two poems. Read the first down and it says one thing.  Read it back up with changes only in punctuation and capitalization, and it says something quite different.  Here’s “Do You Know My Name?” based on “Rumpelstiltskin.”  The wonderful music is by Chris Kubie.

Click here to listen!

But I want to hear not only poets reading our own work.  I want to hear teachers, librarians, students, parents, everyone reading aloud.  However, it is true that it’s not always easy to read a poem well.   So, I thought I’d offer a few tips—some of which I learned from those great producers/directors, Arnie and Debra Cardillo, others in oral interpretation classes, and still others through my husband saying, “Now read it SLOWER.”

1) Familiarize yourself with the poem.   Read it silently and aloud to yourself several times.  If it’s written in a particular form, such as a haiku, a cinquain, a triolet, a sonnet, etc., get to know that form.   Remember the old joke: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Answer:  Practice, practice, practice!

2)  Who’s the speaker of the poem?  Is it the poet (or a version of the poet)?  Is it a character?  If so, what can you tell about this person, animal, creature?  What kind of attitude and voice would he, she, or it have?

3)  What does the poem mean?  What does the title tell you?  There may be shades and levels of meaning, but a poem isn’t open to any old interpretation you throw at it.   However, don’t always expect to understand it immediately—take your time with it.

4)  There may be unfamiliar words in the poem.   Look them up.   You can build your vocabulary at any age.  Learn to pronounce unfamiliar (and occasionally familiar!) words properly:   e.g. I had to find out how to say the word “equipage” from Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”

5)  How is the poem punctuated?  That can be difficult when there is no punctuation, so you have to figure out the pauses and the stops that make the poem make sense.

6)  Study the line breaks, but don’t necessarily pause at the end of every line—including poems in rhyme!   Go with the flow.

7)  What words need to be punched?  On American Idol, Steven Tyler gave a contestant great advice—he said, when you sing, don’t sing everything on the same level.  Figure out which words you want to emphasize and why.

8)  Don’t read like a robot.  What is the emotion behind the poem?   How can you convey it?

9)  Don’t overdo it either by declaiming or overacting.

10)  It’s generally best to slow down when you read.  You may think you’re already reading slowly, but you’re probably not.  Occasionally, a humorous poem, such a list poem, may suggest speed and it might work to be more of a motormouth.  But even then, you have to enunciate (listen to some Gilbert and Sullivan!).  Remember to breathe!

11)  When you’re reading any poem, timing is important, but perhaps especially in humorous poems.  Don’t ever rush the punchline!  And above all, have fun!


A former high school English teacher, Marilyn Singer published her first book, The Dog Who Insisted He Wasn’t, way back in 1976.   Since then, she has published over ninety books in many genres—including the Tallulah picture books and Mirror Mirror (Dutton), for which she created the “reverso.”   It has garnered eighteen state, city, and international award nominations and won a Cybil Award for best poetry book of 2010.

This year, Marilyn has five poetry books coming out:  A Stick Is an Excellent Thing (Clarion), illustrated by LeUyen Pham; Every Day’s a Dog’s Day (Dial), illustrated by Miki Sakamoto; The Boy Who Cried Alien (Hyperion), illustrated by Brian Biggs; The Superheroes Employment Agency (Clarion), illustrated by Noah Z. Jones; and A Strange Place to Call Home (Chronicle), illustrated by Ed Young.  In addition, the second Tallulah book, Tallulah’s Solo (Clarion), illustrated by Alexandra Boiger, will be published by Clarion.  2013 will see another Tallulah book and a new collection of reversos.

Among her interests are swing and ballroom dancing, dog training, bird-watching, theatre-going, and reading.  A native New Yorker, Marilyn currently lives in Brooklyn, NY and Washington, CT with her husband and favorite dance partner, Steve Aronson, and several pets.   She is the co-host of the ALSC Poetry Blast and the administrator of the Fans of the ALSC Poetry Blast Facebook page.



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