Can poetry help you to improve your English? In a word, yes! You may be skeptical, so let me reassure you – this lesson isn’t just for bookworms and literature lovers. If you are thinking, well … poetry isn’t really my cup of tea*, I ask you to keep an open mind. Yes, in the first part of this lesson, we are going to read a poem, but then I’m going to talk about HOW reading poetry is a great way you can get to grips with* English and really start experimenting with the English language.
So please, hang in there – even if you’re not convinced yet!
not my cup of tea* (idiom) : not something I like or not something I’m interested in
get to grips with* (idiom) to begin to understand or deal with (something, such as a problem) in a direct or effective way
Post updated July 30th 2022
Listen and read: poetry to improve your English part 1
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun
We’ll start by reading a poem. And not just any old poem, it’s a Willian Shakespeare poem.
And before you think ugh… snore…. Why?!!!
Let me tell you that not only are you going to read this sonnet, you will also hear it read by the late Alan Rickman, (RIP) who let’s face it, if he had read the bloody phone book out loud, he’d have made it sound magical.
The poem is My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun
Sonnet 130 satirises the tradition – stemming from Greek and Roman literature – of praising the beauty of one’s affection by comparing it to beautiful things, typically in a hyperbolic manner.
Instead of saying that the speaker’s mistress’ eyes are like the sun, the speaker insists that they aren’t like the sun. This notion, that the speaker’s mistress’ body is not like some traditional beautiful object, is fundamental to the poem’s consideration of beauty, love and desire.
Despite her shortcomings, the poet insists that he loves her, not because she is a goddess, not because she is an unattainable beauty, but because she is his, because she is real. He loves her for what the reality is, and not because he can compare her to beautiful things. (Aw!)
For more information about this poem and analysis, read here: it’s pretty interesting!
Listen to a poem in English
Now your task is to listen to the reading of the sonnet and enjoy it! You will, I promise.
Then if you like, there’s a little vocabulary task for you to do.
Below that, you can find out how poetry can help you improve your English and specifically 7 tips on how to use poems to improve your English level. Enjoy!
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
Poetry to improve English: vocabulary quiz
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Listen & read: poetry to improve your English part 2
Is poetry useful for learning English?
The haiku from Japan, the sonnet from Italy, epic poetry from India, the limerick from Ireland …. wherever languages have existed, there has been poetry.
Poetry is a fantastic resource for language learners, especially if you have an advanced English level.
Want to finally understand the nitty-gritty in English?
The nitty-gritty means the finer details.
You have a high level of English, but sometimes … (maybe even often!) you struggle to catch the finer details, or get the joke, or read between the lines…. Right?
First of all, let me say this is normal and it happens to all of us on our English learning journey. One way to improve this is by, yes you guessed it…. reading poetry!
Since poetry allows writers to play with the standards of conventional grammar and break all ‘the rules’ you can learn a great deal about a language by the ways writers have manipulated and played around with the language.
Poems will teach you about literary devices in English (things like metaphors, allegories and symbolism) and often the writer will describe something in a figurative way, which means non-literal or unrealistic.
The more you read, the more you will start to identify these literary devices and as a consequence, you’ll start to have a better understanding of most things you read in English.
You’ll start to get confused less and less because you’ll stop interpreting English too literally!
Poems are a manageable size
Let’s get practical here! For the most part, poems are shorter than books: it’s easier to motivate yourself with a short poem every day than tackling a book, or even an extract from a book.
Think of reading a poem as a bite–sized activity rather than the bigger, more challenging project of reading an entire chapter in a book.
Poems are great for pronunciation practice
Although poems may be less musical than songs, they can be just as lyrical and melodic. The literary devices used, such as alliteration and rhyme, not only allow you to explore the language, they also can help with memory and memorising words. When you read the poetry out loud, you’re forced to practise your pronunciation.
Furthermore, poems that use a formal verse structure are full of information about where the stress falls on certain syllables of certain words, which words do and don’t rhyme, how the syntax works (how individual words come together).
In fact, if you’re willing to look for it, there’s so much structural information in the language of poetry, it’s really a no-brainer as to why poetry can help you improve your English.
The art of word choice
Poems are written very differently to prose. First of all, the message of the poem has to be conveyed within a small amount of space.
More importantly, every word counts. If the poet chooses to use ‘slight’ as opposed to ‘narrow’, there will have been a reason for that.
When you read a poem, pay close attention to the word choice. This will help you understand more deeply words and meanings and why one word is maybe better to use than another word. In short, it’s a super way to expand your vocabulary.
Poetry is a really cool way to gain insight into English-speaking cultures
Poems can offer you a connection to the cultural heritage of the people and places they come from. You can discover histories, traditions, different view points and local colloquialisms.
Improve your awareness and use of punctuation
Without punctuation, a poem can have a whole different meaning – it is an essential part of conveying the right message: punctuation can change meaning, but it can also change the way the poem sounds.
When reading poetry out loud, the punctuation is your guide. Therefore, reading poetry out loud will also increase your awareness of punctuation and how to use it yourself.
7 Tips on how to use poems to improve your English
- Enjoy what you read (if Romanticism doesn’t do it for you, don’t choose to read Coleridge. Always choose subjects or movements, or writers that you like and are interested in)
- Read through it in your head and try to understand what the main message is. Look up any words that you don’t get
- Highlight! (Highlight any language elements that seem crucial to the sound of the poem. For example: words that you think should be stressed, words that rhyme.)
- Listen to it. If possible try to find an audio version of the poem. Most famous poems are read somewhere on the internet. Often a Google or YouTube search will give you results.
- Check the audio reading against your highlights: see whether or not the speaker follows the patterns you’ve marked. Did you put the word stress in the same place? How is the rhythm of the poem different than what you expected? Does it impact the meaning?
- Read the poem out loud and mimic what you heard in the audio recording. This will help your pronunciation since poetry is so concerned with stress and sound, it’s like a bite-sized lesson in learning to speak English naturally.
- Try memorising some lines (or the whole poem if you’ve got a good memory!) This will help you learn new vocabulary through a meaningful context, making memorisation easier
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