How to Read or ‘Walk Through’ Poems

How to Guide by Tiffany Eberle Kriner, Ph.D. (Associate Professor of English)

It can be helpful to read a poem as if it is a space or a landscape you are finding your way into. In this essay, I’ll walk through a Gwendolyn Brooks poem, “kitchenette building,” and along the way describe and model principles for reading poems.  It will be easier to make your way if you have the poem in front of you from the volume of our Selected Poems. Or if your copy isn’t close by, find it here. 

Find Out Where You Are (Identify the Context and Topic)

When you start your walk-through of any poem, it can be helpful to find out where you are. For example, it’s important to note the title of the book from which this poem comes, A Street in Bronzeville, and the title of the poem, “kitchenette building.”  These give important locational and interpretive clues. 

Or at least they prompt questions, and that’s the perfect start. What’s Bronzeville? What’s a kitchenette building? 

 “Bronzeville” is a neighborhood in Chicago, the city’s Black Metropolis. A kitchenette building is a sort of studio apartment building often specifically tied to Bronzeville, Chicago. Here and here are some images. The Encyclopedia of Chicago has an entry on kitchenettes.  While kitchenettes first appeared as a modern urban living innovation in the early 20th century, they became associated, during the Great Migration and after, with racist zoning practices, massive exploitation of renters, overcrowding, and sanitary problems.  

Now we can see a little bit where we are and where the poem is taking us--a building of tiny urban studios on the South Side of Chicago.   

Reading for the Poetic Sentence (Identify the Basic Gist of the Poem)

Next, we will read to figure out the main point of the poem by reading for the sentence or reading for the key unit of thought. Poems often contain many lines that are deliberately broken apart but form “the sentence” or basic gist of an idea. Sometimes it helps to read aloud and listen for how the lines come together for a thought. For example, in “kitchenette building,” the first unit of thought goes until about the middle of the second line: “We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan, / Grayed in, and gray.” Reading the first line alone works just fine--you could try to figure out what it means to describe a group as possessed of dry hours, as subject to plans they didn’t want or make. 

And in many cases, stopping at the end of the line could bring  confusion, such as when you get to lines four through ten of the poem. That poetic sentence, the one starting with “But could a dream send up through onion fumes,” lasts seven lines! If you stop sooner, if you try to start extracting meaning and so forth, you feel bewildered.  

But if you read all the way through those seven lines together, the sentence-thought-unit, the gist becomes clear right away: “Is dreaming really possible in a place like this, even if we wanted to dream?” Reading for this long sentence, especially after the first two sentences, we see “But could a dream...” as an elaboration. In a kitchenette building, gray hours, involuntary plans, rent, and social codes , all  add up to a space where dreaming seems dubious.  

Reading “the kitchennette” again, I find seven little sentences in the poem: (1) Lines 1-2; (2) Lines 2-3; (3) Lines 4-10; (4) Line 11; (5) Line 11; (6) Line 11; (7) Lines 12-13.  And when I walk my way through the sentences, I get something like this for the gist of the poem: in a kitchenette building--subject to physical, economic, and social necessities and boundaries--it can be hard to dream.  We might think about it, but life’s challenges--the need to do the next urgent thing--get in the way of dreaming.  

Rereading for Details: A Closer Look

Getting the general gist or layout prepares you to notice little details that stand out to you.  These can help you move you toward the culmination: cultivating meaning from the poem.

You might notice any number of details, just as the apartment visitor notices any number of features. Poetry offers particular words, images and metaphors, sounds, punctuation, line breaks, references—and so much more. When you walk through the poem, you allow your gaze to light on what it will, knowing there could be meaning everywhere.

If you do this enough when reading a poem, you get a solid impression, a take. If you do this with others, the impression is improved by an order of magnitude, and you move toward interpretation. 

If you do this repeatedly through life with others, as we all may do with the poems we love, the details of poems may inform the very manner of our own seeing and speaking in the world. We begin to use the words of poems we love to describe our experiences and the world around us.  In that case, we don’t just walk through, we move in; the poem becomes a part of us. It  opens our imagination to possibilities and gives us language for our dreams.

A walk through  “kitchenette building” can show how re-reading for details works.   

In that first couple of lines, I notice the “we” most of all: this poem opens with first-person plural speaker. The people of the building, maybe? Or the apartments themselves? Okay.  Lots of poems I have read use the first-person singular: one guiding persona of the poem, probably the writer. In fact, a lyric poem is often described as the articulation a single voice. These sorts of poems often end in revelations of various kinds. But this poem is different--it is the articulation of a group instead of an individual.   

But to choose the word “things” as the first description of the group feels less than celebratory: it is stark and painful. What kind of street or building makes all the persons in its things?!     

After that, “dry hours” and “involuntary plan” follow directly.  If the “we” of the poem, the residents of the kitchenette building, are things, what is lifelike for them? Hours aren’t usually classified as wet or dry in daily standard American speech, so how might we understand such a use?  

“Dry” might be parched or drought laden. Time might pass like that in an overcrowded, overpriced, run-down space. And the “involuntary” plan? Plans seem like they’d involve choice, but housing projects and plans are administered by authorities far above the renters. Rather than being able to arrange and fix up their own spaces, to plan for the future in their home-spaces, residents may feel constrained by a not-benevolent power.  

“Grayed-in, and gray” feels like an important articulation because of the repetition of the word “gray”--such a repetition is important in a short poem where every word is chosen carefully. “Gray” might signify a removal of color--both literally in a washed-out concrete landscape, but also figuratively--made old, made un-vivid perhaps.

Brooks writes about the grayness of a kitchenette building in another spot in her work, the novel Maud Martha, in which the main character has feelings about grayness in a chapter called, significantly, “the kitchenette”: 

She [Maud Martha] was becoming aware of an oddness in color and sound and smell about her, the color and sound and smell of the kitchenette building. The color was gray, and the smell and sound had taken on a suggestion of the properties of color, and impressed one as gray, too. The sobbings, the frustrations, the small hates, the large and ugly hates, the little pushing-through love, the boredom that came to her from behind those walls (some of them beaver-board) via speech and scream and sigh--all these were gray. And the smells of various types of sweat, and of bathing and bodily functions (the bathroom was always in use, someone was always in the [shared] bathroom) and of fresh or stale love-making, which rushed in thick fumes to your nostrils as you walked down the hall, or down the stairs--these were gray.

There was a whole lot of grayness here.

Even if you couldn’t articulate the fullness of what “Grayed-in, and gray” means at first, you probably sensed something like what she says in Maud Martha, because the repetition helps create the feeling in you.

I know the poem cares about the particular words chosen and how they sound and how they make a person feel because of the next lines. To put quotation marks around words is to tell a reader to think about them AS words, maybe as spoken words.  These lines, two and three, put quotation marks around particular words--“dream,” “rent,” “feeding a wife,” “satisfying a man”--and it comments on how they sound, “giddy” or “strong.”

By doing so, this poem seems to ask, “What words and language belong in a space like this kitchenette building?” These words--”rent” and so forth, are words lots of people, have said, have needed to say. Language surrounding bills, necessities, and fundamental social ties is ubiquitous and determining. It seems doubtful to the poem that “dream”-type language could stand up to those realities. 

The next seven lines are all one thought in which the dream sort of does try to fly up among the realities of life. The sentence contrasts the kitchenette’s gray space and the dream by way of imagery and sound. Olfactory imagery is the key to Brooks’ distinction: onions and fried potatoes (lovely at times, but here, fouled by the scent of ripening garbage!) are a pungent odor through which a fluttering purple and white singer (perhaps the scent of “violets” implied by the use of the word “violet” for the purple color?) may ascend.

But what is the dream? A dream has white and purple. It could (maybe) fight the smell. It (maybe) flutters. It (maybe) sings. Perhaps a bird? A butterfly? To use the language of metaphor, the poem  doesn’t state the vehicle for the tenor of the dream. It’s hard to figure out what the dream is. When I go on to that next set of lines, the reason comes clear. Dreams are fragile: they need a home, protection, washing, a trusting ear, a quiet into which they might speak. 

But that evocative dream imagery leads me to wonder about the dream .  How, I might ask, do our dreams fly or flutter? Do dreams need care? What sort? Are they prone to degradation and dirtiness? Is the dream a dream of art since the dream seems to be a singer? What is the dream? 

And more aspects of the poem push me into that space of wonder, too. Why, I wonder, is there an extra line in the second, dream-mentioning stanza? Is the dream extra, and is it pushing out the bounds of the three-line stanza? Is that kind of expansion what happens when we dream, as ideas reach out to swell the given form? Does the dream break out? Or do those fried potatoes ultimately overwhelm the dream? 

If you think I’m pushing it with that “extra line” reading, take a moment to note that the first and last lines of each stanza rhyme. Rhyme is a connecting thing, sometimes a closing-down thing. When successive lines rhyme, as in couplets, it sends a signal of set meaning, something sure and tight as a drum. Like in Shakespeare’s sonnet where the speaker brags on his own poetic power: “"You still shall live, such virtue hath my pen, / Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men." It’s all one thought, and it’s tight. But these lines by Gwendolyn Brooks are couplets with a line stuck in the middle of them. In that second stanza, the dream’s violet expands stretches the rhyme boundaries. 

But it still closes with rhyme. This bothers me, because I find myself, reading the poem, wanting the dream to bloom or fly or sing, here, in the space of the kitchenette building. And suddenly, I realize that in a small way I am part of “we”: the poem has led me into that space. And the poem seems to recognize that it has led the reader here when it says, “We wonder”—because “wondering” is what the readers have been doing for lines and lines. 

At the end of the poem, the poetic voice casts doubt on its own wonder. And now life interrupts, the essentials interrupt: what good now is a dream when your best hope is a lukewarm bath? Here, too, the rhyme reinforces a kind of closing down with its witty clap-shut jointure of “minute” and “in it.” At the same time, the poem casts doubt on the community. “We” here seems to indicate not togetherness but rather a grouping-together of strangers. The person sharing the bathroom isn’t known by name, but by number. 

Cultivating Meanings

Can a dream survive in a place like this? Our original look , getting the gist, might have led us to answer, “probably not?” The limitations placed on life here--the involuntary plan, the dehumanization, poor living conditions, lack of community--threaten the dreams of its residents. 

But my rereading for details has changed the meaning of the poem from that original quick gist. It may be hard to get a dream and a wonder to survive in the kitchenette building, but somehow the poem has made me participate in both the difficult wonder and the fragile dream. At the end of the poem, I want more wonder, and I want more dream. Walking through the poem has changed the way I see the space.

Here’s another way to say this. “Kitchenette building” is the first poem in the Selected Poems, and the second poem in the original 1945 collection A Street in Bronzeville. This means that “kitchenette building” is a salutation rather than a valediction. The book starts with a seemingly foreclosed dream of a street and building, but then proceeds to open up the doors of the apartments, to reach into the hearts and minds of the citizens, bringing them into relationship with one another by their proximity across the turning pages. 

We may have thought, reading the gist, that “kitchenette building” was a closed edifice; it was really only the opening door. 

All of which to say that “kitchenette building” is only the beginning of a project of wondering that drives Brooks’ entire career of artistic production. Brooks’ poem works wonder into the readers—whether from inside the building or outside the building—who encounter the hesitant, fragile dream. The poem prepares us all to open the door to our neighbors’ dreams and our own, to listen to them, to give them sanctuary, to help them fly. 

Reading in Community

If we read this poem together, our walk-through would be better than this one. It would  include your observations, your care for the  meanings that arise. You might get hung up on the way speech makes its way into the poem--not just with those quotation marks, but with the question marks and exclamation points. Is Brooks making a poetry of the spoken word and the voice? You might connect Brooks to the great writers of dramatic monologue, like Robert Browning. How does Brooks’ relationship to poetic tradition help us? Speaking of that, what about this dream language? Sounds like Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem” from Montage of a Dream Deferred, but it comes BEFORE Hughes’s poem. You might geek out on how this poem is just thirteen lines: it’s so close to a sonnet, but not quite. . .  what might that mean?! You might ask what difference 80 years makes—is it okay for us to relate “kitchenette building” to our own lives and experiences and communities in the present day? Some of us recognize experiences like those articulated in “kitchenette building," but others not so much. You might want to talk about audiences then and now: is Brooks’ audience a black audience from the community? A white audience? A national audience that includes all races and backgrounds? What difference does it make? Is the audience meant to be insiders in the kitchenette building or outsiders taking a tour? Who gets to be part of Brooks’ “we”? And that “keep it very clean” line: is that implying a politics of respectability required for American dreams? We could go on. 

My point is that one person’s interpretation is only the beginning of what this poem might become among us. A poem, like a dream, can be a tiny, fragile thing. Poems, like dreams, might need to fight against the overwhelming odors and schedules of our days. If they can, they might sing out among and with and against the languages and necessities that surround us.

Maybe we are immured in our own dry hours and involuntary plans, circumscribed by language, necessities,  disappointments. Will we let this poem—these dreams--in? Will we open the door and walk out to meet the dream?

We wonder. This year, with Gwendolyn Brooks, let’s wonder well, for more than a minute.

Want to experience more walk- throughs of “kitchenette building”? Try reading this or listening to this. Share your readings at