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Don't Read Poetry: A Book About How to Read Poems

3.88  ·  Rating details ·  202 ratings  ·  54 reviews
An award-winning poet offers a brilliant introduction to the joys--and challenges--of the genre

In Don't Read Poetry, award-winning poet and literary critic Stephanie Burt offers an accessible introduction to the seemingly daunting task of reading, understanding, and appreciating poetry. Burt dispels preconceptions about poetry and explains how poems speak to one another--a
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published May 21st 2019 by Basic Books
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Average rating 3.88  · 
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 ·  202 ratings  ·  54 reviews

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Apr 10, 2019 rated it really liked it
Don’t Read Poetry feels like a written long-form lecture from your favorite English professor, hip and approachable but still hoping you’ll learn something. It took me longer to read than expected because I found myself making reading lists – I wish it came with a textbook of all these poems in their full forms!

My e-reader copy was not formatted perfectly, and sometimes it was hard to follow. I’d recommend checking how the book is formatted on your e-reader by downloading a sample before purchas
Tanya Gold
May 29, 2020 rated it really liked it
I could tell you how much I love this book. Or I could just show you.

Don't Read Poetry packed full of bookmarks
Kara Babcock
As previously discussed in my review of The Hatred of Poetry , I struggle with reading poetry. So I was tantalized by the title of this book. The previous book was a gift from a fellow teacher friend whose feelings about poetry are a bit less ambivalent than mine. When I learned about Don’t Read Poetry, I thought it would be a good reciprocal gift to her. Stephanie Burt’s thesis is basically that we should avoid seeing poems as part of a monolithic form we call “poetry,” because it’s reductiv ...more
Ann T
Aug 23, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Thank you Perseus Books and Netgalley for this ARC.

I haven’t read much poetry since high school and over the past year or two I have been trying to read different forms as part of my reading habit. This book was perfectly timed for me. I have always shied away from poetry, but this helped me understand it’s forms and some it’s functions. I truly appreciate the time taken by Stephanie Burt to explain these in her book and I truly hope that the result it a lot more people enjoying poetry as part o
Christine C
May 21, 2019 rated it it was amazing
In Don't Read Poetry, poet and Harvard professor Stephanie Burt takes on everyone who doesn't understand poetry, or thinks it a bore, or drudgery to be suffered through in school. 
"So: don't read poetry. Don't assume poetry ever means only one thing, other than maybe a set of tools for making things with words, as music means a set of tools (beats, rhythms, harmonies, textures, instruments) for making things with sounds. instead, find ways to encounter kinds of poems and learn different reasons
Mike Nesemann
Mar 24, 2020 rated it liked it
I have always felt I “should” read poetry but multiple efforts were short-lived, perhaps because I approach it like prose, reading a few “chapters” per sitting. Never worked. So this book’s title caught my eye. Basically the premise is, check out the vast universe of poetry and read the poems you like, don’t feel you have to enjoy all of them. In other words, read poems not poetry. She uses music as an analogy, almost everyone enjoys some kinds of music but can't abide others. She certainly know ...more
Seema Rao
Feb 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
Thoughtful ~ Honest ~ Helpful

tl; dr: Poetry doesn't suck, and you can learn to believe this.

I have always hated poetry. It's one of those dirty secrets I don't usually share because it makes me nuts when people say they hate reading or art (two parts of my job). I grabbed this book like a guilty teen with a crib sheet. But, I'm so glad I did. Even poetry lovers will enjoy Burt's book. She comes at the topic from a place of support and honesty. So many literature teachers are snobs and treat tho
Ellie King
Jul 06, 2019 rated it really liked it
A bit dry and slow in some parts, but Burt is successful at making poetry a less daunting and fairly exciting art form for someone like me, who has never known much about it except what was dryly taught to me in high school. Read this book to get a great selection of interesting poems and also if you want to feel the urge to set it down every 15 minutes and give a shot at writing poetry yourself.
Jul 13, 2019 rated it it was amazing
If you’re like me and think you hate poetry or are intimidated by it but suspect you’re missing out on a whole other world this book works. Also a good introduction to a ton of contemporary poets who are talking about all the things you care about now - culturally, politically, aesthetically - all that
May 02, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: poetry, 2020
I read this once and then I read it again. It’s a library book; the library has stopped taking books back for now, due to Covid-19, so after it had been sitting on my table for awhile I decided to read it a second time. The first time I thought it was disjointed, but now the pieces begin to come together. I’m glad to know Stephanie Burt. She’s an influential poet-critic-professor but she’s not writing from a high place. She often writes in first person, and she addresses the reader directly. She ...more
May 20, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Disclosure: Stephanie is a good friend and one of the smartest people I know. The conceit of the title is: don’t read poetry, read poems, which “are like pieces of music: by definition they all have something in common, but they vary widely in how they work, where they come from, and what they try to do.” One thing vital to the poetic project is the arrangement of language “to convey, share, or provoke emotions,” along with whatever else a poem does. Poems can also introduce us to characters, in ...more
Mar 28, 2019 rated it really liked it
I felt that I sucked at reading poetry; as I would read, even at a snail's pace, I was convinced that I was missing some larger point entirely, wholly disrespecting the author's work like a dog gnawing on bones at an archaeological dig.

While I can't say that I'm completely prepared to take on even a quarter of the poetry out there (I should be clear that Burt doesn't certify that this book is a Rosetta Stone for understanding all poems past this read), I guarantee that I'm looking at these works
Sep 14, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: poetry, literature
A helpful, amusingly opinionated and thought-provoking guide for how to think about reading individual poems. Some notions are fairly obvious, like reading for feelings and character. Others more surprising and illuminating, like reading for “difficulty.” I enjoyed the many illustrative examples throughout, and appreciated that the writer didn’t offer a “what to read now” at the end, although I might not have minded a straightforward citation list to help find the full poems excerpted within. Ov ...more
Reading Cat
I'm always looking to find ways to make poetry more accessible for my students, so I saw this book getting some buzz and so obviously, I read it. And perhaps reading it with an eye for that--for 'can I recommend/excerpt/assign parts of this in my lit classes' is what accounts for the rating. And part of it, I really think, is just the book's fizzle.

See, it starts out great. It starts out clear and strong and just as rebellious as the title promises. It gives us six lenses from which to view and
Joseph Spuckler
Oct 08, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poetry, poetics
Burt provides an intriguing primer on poetry for those who are just discovering the art. She states that this is not a book for those looking for justification of popular poetry, but it is a book that helps one navigate through the many types of poetry. Burt uses well-known poets of different eras like O'Hara, Shelly, Byron, and Frost as well as a host of other lesser known poets. The exploration of poetry leads to the (human) commonality of many types and eras as well as differences in style.

Curt Bobbitt
Aug 04, 2019 rated it really liked it
Stephanie Burt succeeds with the goals she states in the subtitle, the introduction, and several reminders later in the book.

“If this book works as I hope it will, you will evolve your own reasons for liking poems too, however you find more of them (in anthologies, on websites, in single-author volumes, via audio or video): they will be reasons not wholly congruent with my own six categories (feeling, character, technique, difficulty, wisdom, and community).

Burt sometimes commands readers: "Don
Mar 03, 2021 rated it really liked it
This book proves to me another reason why leading a weekly discussion of all manner of poems has been and continues to be a success. The title is a clever gimmick perhaps-- where the emphasis on what is actually meant, is not revealed -- the same kind of gimmick poets use when they follow the golden rule of "show, don't tell". What "showing" allows, is a conversation with the reader, that requires the reader to notice... observe, wonder, ponder.

Poetry, as a noun, often is misunderstood by those
Deedi Brown (DeediReads)
Mar 31, 2021 rated it really liked it
All my review live at


Don’t Read Poetry is not quite the reading-poetry-how-to I’d expected, but I’m so glad I picked it up; it is an homage to the world of poetry that’s a delight to read.

For you if: You have a basic handle on how poetry “works” and want to go a bit deeper.


One of my intentions this year is to become more familiar with and comfortable in the world of poetry. I started with Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Poetry Like a Prof
Oliver Bogler
Oct 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Thanks to a colleague (who is a writer, poet, and former English Professor) I have gathered my courage in my 6th decade to try and learn how to read and appreciate poetry. In addition to reading poetry, I read this book by Stephanie Burt and found it just wonderful and amazing. It is accessible, well written and perfectly well suited to someone early in their poetry journey, though I can imagine that more experienced readers will also get much out of it.

Burt divides the book into areas that are
John Fredrickson
Feb 12, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: to-re-read, poetics
The title of this book is perfect for the contents, but the reader doesn't know this until well into the reading of the book. This is not a book about the play of language and technique that most poetry books address, but more about how one understands and appreciates individual poems in what they do and say. The book comes across somewhat as a discussion in which the author shares her sense of what is going on in some poems, and points to things to consider along the way. Some of the chapters r ...more
Jan 20, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
A good reintroduction to poetry for those, like myself, who last seriously thought about the subject in high school or college. Burt does an excellent job of reminding the reader what we can get out of poems - why we read them and what poems can accomplish. One of her main points is that we shouldn't think about "Poetry" as a classic and dusty old art form to be studied. Rather, we should read individual poems and poets. We should be moved, comforted, and challenged by them. I particularly appre ...more
Robert B
Jan 10, 2020 rated it liked it
Burt, a poet herself, provides an introduction to reading, understanding, and appreciating individual poems. She classifies these poems into six categories (overlapping, not mutually exclusive), devoting a chapter to each: Feelings, Characters, Forms, Difficulty, Wisdom, and Community. The poets discussed range from John Donne to Terrance Hayes, from Emily Dickinson to Angie Estes. Burt usually provides just one or two stanzas of a poem, and while this approach does allow her to cover more poems ...more
Nicholas Seders
Feb 08, 2020 rated it liked it
A Refreshing Approach
I really liked the organization of this book, which emphasized the different reasons that one might approach a poem. Rather than giving us a chronological or technical anthology, Burt asked us to consider why and how we read poems. Particularly strong are the chapters that highlight feelings, forms, and community! Though my preferences likely differ from the author's in many ways, I'm walking away from Don't Read Poetry a better and more excited reader.
Dec 24, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: poetry
Burt argues in the introduction that poetry is not one thing and that saying, “I read poetry,” is as vague and pointless as saying, “I listen to music,” leaving students without direction. She then lays out reasons for reading poems—feelings, characters, forms, difficulty, wisdom, and community—to give readers some guidance in exploring their way to the types of poems they like. Similar to Adam Sol’s How a Poem Moves, but I found this one a little more engaging—or maybe the lessons are just sink ...more
Mary Casey
Jul 21, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I loved this book. I write poetry myself and I highly recommend this book for anyone thinking of writing poetry or learning how to read poetry. It seems like such a nebulous art but this book is great at focusing on what poetry is and can be for each individual.

This is not a boring book in the least. If you have ever been curious about poetry or think you can't read it or write it give this book a try!

Thank you to NetGalley for the chance to read the ARC of this book
Richard Leis
Nov 22, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poetry

I've struggled since late in 2013 to make sense of "Poetry" even while becoming a poet. This book finally provides me with a framework for reading poems, rather than poetry. Stephanie Burt, in beautiful prose full of examples and anecdotes, discusses the many things different poems attempt to do, the various reasons poets write poems, and the various reasons readers might be drawn to particular poems and poets.
Dec 17, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: poems
I liked this book a lot. Basically the author says: Don’t read poetry - read poems. “Poetry” is not a single unified category - poems do lots of different things and people read them to get different things out of them. The author was very thoughtful in her exploration of this theme and the various things poems are for. My only criticism is that it was a little unsatisfying to read so many quotes from different poems rather than reading the actual whole poems.
Stephen Newell
Jan 27, 2020 rated it really liked it
Burt provides a really great overview of the value of poetry, which really provides me with a lot of encouragement (as a non-poetry reader) to invest some more time into books of verse! She does have a habit of meandering around from poetic example to poetic example within each chapter, which made it a slower-than-usual read for me. Altogether though, each piece does still work towards the common goal of a chapter, so by the end, you’ll still feel satisfied that your time spent was worth it!
Andrea McDowell
Mar 10, 2020 rated it liked it
I enjoyed this book and the author's classification of poetry styles and effects, and love as always introductions to new-to-me poets, but I'm not sure who the intended audience is. It seems that the people most likely to read it are those who are already convinced that poetry is relevant and has value, and those who she's most interested in talking to--those who think of "poetry" as a monolithic thing that they don't enjoy--are unlikely to pick it up. Which is a shame.

It's a good book. If you t
Natty S
Apr 17, 2020 rated it really liked it
Excellent and accessible introduction to poetry for those who find poetry intimidating. Burt will take you through poetry of all kinds by people of all kinds (I think that was my favorite part of this book -- the sheer breadth of voices) and help you understand why poems (as opposed to poetry) mean so much to us. I would have liked a bit more technical tuition on form, meter, etc. But then, I suppose there are plenty of other books for that.
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Stephanie Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of [her] generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale.

Burt has taught at Macalester College and is now Professor of English at Harvard University. She lives in the suburbs of Boston with her spouse, Jessie B

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