This is a piece I use in many of my classes. I reprint it here with permission of the author. It's a good teaching tool but also a gentle reminder to those of us who write poetry as well. --LRD
How to Read Poetry
By: Sydney James
1) When first approaching a poem, put your intellect away. Good poems are trying to express things at the intuitive, imaginative and emotional level. Most contemporary poems can’t be reduced to a logical statement.
2) Meanings are often contained inside visual images. For instance, if you read “an apple in a bowl, with gold light pouring off the sides,” you sense of home, of beauty, perhaps of strength or hope – but the poet has not given you the words “beauty” or “home.” On the other hand, if you read “an apple withering in a tarnished bowl”, you have sense of decay, perhaps of sadness or despair. LOOK FOR THE IMAGES, and FEEL THE EMOTIONS that the images might give you. Poets rarely say something straight on; they come at it indirectly. If this makes you impatient, sit down sometime and try to describe how it feels to hold a baby, or your first kiss, or a fight with your mother.
This is also known as the principle of ASSOCIATION. Poets rely on the association of elements. This means – if I want to write about summer, I may describe a sailboat, which will probably make you think about warm weather and sunshine. Or I might describe grass growing very tall and green in a field – that’s a summer image. You ASSOCIATE green grass with summer. Connect the words in a poem with things inside your head that they are RELATED to. The poet may not really be talking about a sailboat at all – s/he may be trying to give you a sense of motion sickness, and the sailboat may be a metaphor for emotional experiences that upset our equilibrium. METAPHOR is another form of ASSOCIATION.
3) FORM OFTEN REVEAL CONTENT. A poem with long lines and little punctuation might give you a sense of hurry, whereas a poem with short line and careful, measured punctuation might provide a sense of peace – or sadness. Look at the WAY a poem is written; that is how it appears on the page and how it progresses inside your head.
4) SOUND. Poets rely not only on what words MEAN but how they SOUND – the sound is part of the meaning. If you have words that have a lot of n’s and r’s, e’s and I sounds – for example “singing”, “prayer” – those words are usually peaceful, pretty words. On the other hand, words with b’s, k’s, t’s, and some “un’ sounds tend to be harsher and more choppy – “brutal”, “trudge”. Poets count on the sounds to portray their meaning.
5) Add it all together: what’s in the poem and what it’s brought up inside your head. But keep in mind that the parts may be contradictory. Poets are often trying to express feeling or situations that “we have no words” for – in other words, feelings and situations that are paradoxical, ambiguous or bizarre. A poem that mixes peaceful sounds with a nervous rhythm may be a failed poem, or it may be trying to express a day at the amusement park.