The massive popularity of Spanish comes with a fantastic advantage: there are countless resources to choose from. Hispanic literature is among them, but poems usually go unnoticed in comparison to the attention given to novels and short stories. In this post, we will explore how to use poetry as study material and how it can contribute to your language learning journey.

Just like any other resource, it works best for certain people. It may be a good fit for your study routine if:

  • You enjoy getting a feel for how a language sounds or how musical it can be
  • You like consuming different types of native content, and you feel somewhat comfortable reading in Spanish

Poetry may not work for you if:

  • You are still a beginner
  • You don’t find pleasure in reading (regardless of your level)
  • Your key priority is attaining functional skills for day-to-day use

Whatever the case, I suggest you keep reading since this article contains practical advice on using written materials to study languages.

Also, while we'll be focusing on Spanish, the guidelines shared here are transferable. They will be helpful for people learning other languages with a considerable corpus of poetry, too, like Portuguese, Italian, Catalan, German, or French.


What makes poetry useful for learning languages?

🔵 Enriching vocabulary

Literary language is the style of language used in formal, literary, or academic settings. It comprises specific linguistic components that L1 speakers (i.e., natives) acquire through traditional education. Reading formal texts will help you develop a deeper and broader understanding of Spanish, more similar to that of people from Hispanic countries.

What makes poetry stand out? It can afford to be deliberately inventive and original (unlike, for example, academic writing), and it embodies the pursuit of beauty through words and sounds, pushing the aesthetic qualities of language beyond what is commonplace. Because of this, you will:

  • Come across unfamiliar words
  • See words you already know being used in unexpected and unfamiliar ways

Fun fact: Spanish has a term for literary words! Cultismos are used in intellectual, scientific and literary domains.

🔵 Unique musicality

Since ancient times, poets from different literary traditions worldwide have aimed to create an aesthetic experience by imbuing their words with melodious sounds.

Let’s read out loud:

La princesa está triste… ¿qué tendrá la princesa?
Los suspiros se escapan de su boca de fresa,
Que ha perdido la risa, que ha perdido el color.
La princesa está pálida en su silla de oro,
Está mudo el teclado de su clave sonoro;
Y en un vaso olvidada se desmaya una flor.
Sonatina by Ruben Darío
(English translation available here)

In this stanza, a carefully crafted melody is hiding behind the lines, eager to be stumbled upon by a curious reader. Poetry is unique in its pursuit of euphony (the quality of being pleasing to the ear). As such, reading poems can help you to get a deep feel for the rhythm and musicality of Spanish. These qualities may be evident for native speakers, but they require a conscious effort for learners of Spanish to notice.

It should be noted that many poets, especially those since the 20th century, have neglected traditional prosody (the elements of poetry that give it a particular rhythmic effect). Nowadays, verso libre (free verse) is hugely popular, and although these works can indeed be beautiful, their musicality is scant or non-existent.

Fun fact: Poets achieve euphony by adhering to a set of patterns called Métrica (Prosody), skillfully balancing the number of syllables in a verse, intonation, the distribution of stressed syllables in words, rhymes, and more. An English example, from William Blake's The Tyger: And what shoulder, & what art, / Could twist the sinews of thy heart? / And when thy heart began to beat, / What dread hand? & what dread feet?

🔵 Cultural immersion

Poetry holds a critical place in the literary heritage of many Hispanic nations. To appreciate these literary traditions, understanding poetry is essential — just like native speakers, who studied masterful poets in school. We can go beyond literature: some authors are genuine sources of national pride in their homelands. Delving into poetry gives readers a precious glimpse into the cultural spheres of places as diverse as Guatemala, Venezuela, and Chile.

Fun fact: In 1920, the Nicaraguan Government renamed a municipality in honor of the country’s greatest poet, Ruben Darío, who was born there. The new name was Ciudad Darío.

Open book.
Photo by Elisa Calvet B. / Unsplash

Start using poetry to improve your Spanish today

🟢 Choose a suitable poet

In the history of Hispanic literature, poets come in all shapes and sizes. Let's find out what to think about when choosing one.

🕰️ Historical period

Spanish passed  through several “stages” before becoming the language we know today. As such, when picking a poet, check what year they were born.

  • As a general rule, the closer to the present day they are, the easier they will be to understand.
  • As the time gap widens, now-obsolete language will become more prevalent, slowly verging into unintelligible terrain. This is no exaggeration! 12th-century Spanish, called Castellano Antiguo o Medieval (Old or Medieval Spanish), is the predecessor of Modern Spanish. Unfortunately, the two languages aren’t mutually intelligible.

For comparison, here is a fragment of the 13th-century romance Havelok the Dane, in Middle English: It was a king bi are dawes, / That in his time were gode lawes / He dede maken and ful wel holden.

📝 Style

Poets are well-acquainted with crossing literary boundaries. Many have coined new words, used nonsensical expressions, and experimented with things like ignoring punctuation. Some writers went a step further by experimenting with the literal shape of their works, crafting poems with a visual component — such as calligrams. These pieces aren’t the best choice for learners because of their avant-garde nature.

🏙️ Nationality

Working with poets from places that interest you is a good idea. Becoming familiar with the topics they cover will increase your comprehension of the region’s culture and history. Many authors aimed for a local flavor in their writing, and you will find this in word choice.

💡 Explore

This is where the fun begins! Think of a Hispanic poet that you have heard before and search about their historical period and poetic style. If they seem suitable for language study, test them with a couple of pieces. Did they catch your attention? Were they reasonably challenging (not too easy, not too difficult)?

Here are a few poets worth exploring: Carlos Pezoa Véliz (Chile), Antonio Machado (Spain), Juana de Ibarbourou (Uruguay), Luis de Góngora y Argote (Spain), and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (Mexico).

Al que ingrato me deja busco amante;
Al que amante me sigue dejo ingrata;
Constante adoro a quien mi amor maltrata,
Maltrato a quien mi amor busca constante.
Sonnet by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, courtesy of Wikipedia 

🟢 Read out loud

As the stanza we read earlier shows, poems are more than words on a page (or a screen). Reading aloud makes poetry’s musical vibrancy come to life, giving the reader a deeper sense of how Spanish sounds and how harmonious it can be.

If you are concerned about your pronunciation, pair up with a native speaker or quickly search on YouTube or Spotify, where you can listen to recordings of many popular works. You may also find musicalized adaptations and declamaciones (declamations), a performance where a reciter conveys the feeling and meaning of a poem through their voice and body language.

Similar to songs, euphonic poems are easier to memorize than other types of written content. This will come in handy when working with new vocabulary and grammar points. We will cover this next.

🟢 Focus on vocabulary

Facing scholarly terms turns a high-quality dictionary into a must-have. On top of direct translations, you will also need facts to contextualize them. This higher degree of detail matters because it allows you to make informed decisions about which words are worth adding to your vocabulary and which would provide little to no return.

The Diccionario de la lengua española (Dictionary of the Spanish language) is the most reputable Spanish dictionary. It’s edited and regularly updated by the Real Academia de la Lengua Española (Royal Spanish Academy) and the Asociación de Academias de la Lengua Española (Association of Academies of the Spanish Language). This dictionary covers 90,000 headwords, providing valuable information like etymology, word class, grammatical gender, notes about usage, and synonyms. The online version is available for free and can be accessed here.

The DSL is intended for Spanish speakers, so a solid intermediate level is a prerequisite for using it. If that’s not your case (yet — you’ll get there!), make sure that your dictionary provides enough detail for you to properly handle challenging vocabulary.

🟢 Focus on grammar

Poems can provide useful example sentences for remembering grammar points, since their sentences are often more engaging, memorable, and distinctive than those of everyday speech and other kinds of content. This may be due to poetry's musical attributes, the emotive responses it generates, the aesthetic pleasure we take in consuming it, or the compelling rhetorical devices used to create it.

In general, unfamiliar grammar structures (in literature or anywhere else) should be tackled in the way you personally find effective. Some learners stick to a textbook-heavy approach, while others favor receiving tons of input and picking up grammar intuitively. There’s no one single path to success.

Translations can be a good starting point to take on grammar and vocabulary, but it’s important to remember that certain aspects of poetry will be lost in translation. For language learning, analyzing both the original and adapted versions can be quite insightful. This way, you will be able to identify anything that was significantly altered or disregarded, and supplement it as you see fit.

Foreign-language poems are regularly published in “dual language” or “bilingual” editions. Look up parallel texts of authors that appeal to you with those keywords. Always keep in mind that translations should be seen as an aid, a bridge to the original work. After all, we are aiming to learn a new language!

The last sun
Photo by Susan Q Yin / Unsplash

A step-by-step guide

At this point you should have a broad idea of some good practices you can employ to improve your Spanish with poetry. Now, let's walk through a sample study session together.

  1. Listen to a native speaker’s reading of the poem. (Optional.)
  2. Give the text a first read-through without looking anything up. Try to understand as much as possible with no external help.
  3. Pick out every single thing that you don’t understand or comprehend well enough. The former is easy to identify, but the latter will differ from person to person. Examine what it means to you carefully. Highlight any unfamiliar words and grammar structures that require your attention.
  4. Formulate hypotheses. What do you think those terms mean? How do the grammar points seem to work?
  5. Read a translation, paying close attention. Double check using a comprehensive dictionary. Find the answers to your questions. Were you able to clear them up? Take note of any remaining doubts and save them for a future conversation with a tutor or language partner.
  6. Prioritize the knowledge that fits your needs and interests. Process the relevant words and grammar in a way that’s effective for you, e.g., sentence mining, handmade flashcards, writing your own sentences, SRS software, etc.
  7. You should now be able to read the poem with less of a language barrier. Congratulations!
  8. Reread, savoring the poem whenever you want. This is real-life spaced repetition.

Then, you can optionally add some speaking practice by answering this questionnaire out loud:

  • ¿Qué te pareció el poema? (What do you think about the poem?)
  • ¿Qué te llamó la atención? (What caught your attention?)
  • ¿Qué temas aborda? (What topics does it address?)
  • ¿Cómo se siente el autor respecto a los temas que aborda? (How does the author feel about the topics they address?)
  • ¿Cómo te sientes tú respecto a ese tema? (How do you feel about those topics?)

Of course, this plan is just a general suggestion. You can adjust it as you please to better suit your personal preferences.

Be mindful of the language register

There is a gap between native content and how speakers express themselves in everyday life. The difference can range from non-existent or very small (a casual chat on live TV) to quite significant (an 18th-century novel). Being aware of this will allow you to choose when and how to use your newly acquired poetic knowledge.

For example, you can use malva (mauve) instead of morado (purple) in real life. Its specificity can make it appropriate in certain contexts, but if you say apropincuarse rather than acercarse, you will get odd looks. (Both of these words mean “to become nearer”, but only the latter is commonly heard.) While knowing the word entrambos (an old-fashioned way of saying “both”) is helpful for reading literature of the Spanish Golden Age, knowing it won’t make reading contemporary works any easier, because it fell out of use a long time ago.

Mi infancia son recuerdos de un patio de Sevilla,
y un huerto claro donde madura el limonero;
mi juventud, veinte años en tierras de Castilla;
mi historia, algunos casos que recordar no quiero.
Retrato by Antonio Machado


Final thoughts

Even though it’s rarely explored as such, poetry can be a worthy addition to your language learning toolkit. Sure, it’s not for everyone, but language resources never are one-size-fits-all. If this article piqued your interest, let yourself explore the richness, subtlety, and uniqueness of Hispanic poetry. While doing so, you can polish your Spanish skills… and the process may move you, or even transform you.

Languages have a vast range of usage: the way we speak to friends or loved ones differs greatly from how we write academic essays, give a speech or ask for directions. Within this assortment of possibilities, the potential for discovery and exploration is exceptional. In poetry, you may find an alluring treasure, overflowing with a gleaming beauty that you didn’t know existed.

Here are some recommendations to get you started:

  • If you want to try an ornate, lush writing style: Ruben Darío.
  • If you are interested in contemporary writers: Federico García Lorca.
  • If you are curious about the Spanish Golden Age: Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.

This trove is unlocked by reading.

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