When Billy Collins was U.S. poet laureate, he launched a program called Poetry 180: a poem a day for American high schools. The idea was “to make it easy for students to hear or read a poem on each of the 180 days of the school year.” He selected 180 poems based in part on how good they sounded read out loud, hoping that a different student, teacher, or other school employee read them over the public address system after the announcements each morning.
As part of the project, Collins compiled four basic, common-sense suggestions on How to Read a Poem Out Loud, which I imagine must’ve taken a great number of English teachers by surprise — especially the advice not to pause at the end of each line. He recommended that students be given the poems several days in advance and urged to practice their reading. Here are his 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.
One could certainly argue about whether this advice is universally applicable, but it certainly seems like a good starting point — especially for the very mainstream poems Collins selected.