World Poetry Day 2021: Reading Poetry as a Writer

Guest post by Mariah Whelan, Homerton’s Poet-in-Residence

On Sunday 21st March 2021, people around the world will celebrate UNESCO’s World Poetry Day. While we can’t get together in-person for live events this year, one thing we can do is enjoy reading poetry.

As a poet, I read poems every day. Each morning, before I start work on edits or admin, I grab a pencil and spend half an hour leafing through a collection. Reading poems plays a huge role in my writing practice. In this blog, I’ll go over why I read poetry and how to read poems as a writer, and I’ll share some of my reading recommendations.  

What is reading as a writer?

For some strange reason, many people think that poets are born rather than made. While we have plenty of music conservatoires and art schools, there is a slightly sniffy attitude when it comes to creative writing. Personally, since I was a small child, I’ve had a love of writing poetry. However, studying creative writing at ‘writing school’ helped me to develop my passion into a professional career.

In my MA and PhD studies, I learned how to use craft and technique to express my themes and ideas. Just as artists in art school study the paintings of great masters to gain insight into their methods and approaches, I studied poems to learn how to shape meaning through careful attention to language, imagery, sound and form.

Reading, then, has played a huge role in learning how to write. In my BA studies in English Literature, I learned how to read and analyse texts to formulate a critical position. In writing school, I learned how to identify the effect of a text and to analyse how it achieves that effect so I can experiment with its techniques in my own work. What happens when Shakespeare compares his love ‘to a summer’s day’? How can I use that mechanism of comparison to express my own experiences?

How to read as a writer

For me, there are 3 stages to reading like a writer:

  1. Identifying the effect of a text
  2. Examining how this effect is achieved
  3. Thinking about how to achieve this effect in your own work

When identifying the effect of a text, it’s a good idea to read as widely as possible. I build my reading list out of the titles recommended by organisations like The Poetry Book Society and the shortlists of awards like The Forward Prizes. You can buy collections to support poets and presses, but they’re also very often available at Cambridge’s libraries if budget is an issue.

Once you have your collections, it’s time to get reading. Set aside as little as 10 minutes a day, grab a pencil and start paying attention to what you love. Which poems do you want to read again and again? Draw a star next to them. Are there parts of poems you find yourself lingering over? Underline them and ask yourself why this might be. How is the poem making you feel? What ideas, moods, themes and tones is it communicating either overtly or through implication? Make brief notes in the margins of the page.

Now that you’ve identified what you like about a poem, it’s time to start figuring out how it’s weaving its magic. For me, I focus on 4 specific areas: language; form; sound and imagery. Go back to the poems you’ve starred and the individual lines you’ve underlined. How is the poem using syntax, voice, tone and original language to communicate its themes, emotions and ideas? What’s going on with line length, enjambment and line breaks? Can you identify any sound patterns like rhyme, assonance or alliteration and how are they supporting the poem’s meaning? Is the poem using any simile or metaphor? Why are they effective (or not)? Keep making notes around your poem.

A page in a book of poetry with highlighting, underlining and annotations in pen and pencil. The title of the poem shown is “II. BUT A DEDICATION IS ONLY FELICITOUS IF PERFORMED BEFORE WITNESSES – IT IS AN ESSENTIALLY PUBLIC SURRENDER LIKE THAT OF STANDARDS OF BATTLE”.

Once you have found the poems you love and identified how they work, it’s time to start thinking about how you can use their techniques in your own writing. If a poem you love uses a fresh and original metaphor to communicate an experience, experiment with writing metaphors of your own. Maybe a poem uses very long lines or lots of enjambment, would these approaches suit the themes and ideas you want to explore? Experiment with them and then reflect on if they’re working or not. The great thing about poetry is that words are cheaper than paint or clay. All you have to do is cross out one experiment and try again.

A large open notebook on a desk with one page full of notes and an open book of poetry sitting on top. The poetry book displays the poems “BARN OWLS IN SUFFOLK” and “DRYAD”. There’s a pen on the notebook and a highlighter next to it.

Reading recommendations

Now that you know how to read as a writer, why not get started with the titles below? The Homerton College Library will have all these books on display for World Poetry Day (or very shortly after, owing to longer delivery times), so pop in to grab a copy if you’re on site. One thing to remember is not to make notes in the Library’s copies of these publications! Make sure you pop your notes in a notebook or on a piece of paper instead.

A small stack of poetry books, with an arrangement of postcards and jars in the background. The titles of the books are the ones in the list of recommendations at the end of this article.

List of recommendations:

Platinum Blonde by Phoebe Stuckes (Bloodaxe)

The Air Year by Caroline Bird (Carcanet)

Tongues of Fire by Seán Hewitt (Cape Poetry)

Shine, Darling by Ella Frears (Offord Road Books)

Tiger Girl by Pascale Petit (Bloodaxe)


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The Library of Homerton College, University of Cambridge.
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