If you are new to reading and analyzing poetry, it can be overwhelming especially with poets who use ambiguous imagery along with complicated literary style. However, it can be done if you know how to approach a poem. It is important to read the poem several times if the initial reading does not make the meaning clear.
Reading a poem aloud is a good idea as some of the meaning may reveal itself when you intone it. While you read the poem, keep a paper and a pencil handy to write down anything that strikes you as being special.
When you read all your notes at the end, you may see that the meaning is revealed or you can use the jottings as starting points for further enquiry. Poets like to use poetic devices for special effects. This may help to highlight the meaning or hide it. Breaking the poem into segments will enhance your understanding further. The segments that can further your understanding are content, language, imagery, form and syntax. There may be instances where these segments overlap or merge.
Content: Your enquiry should focus on the speaker. Does the poet speak in his own voice or is it a third person who is omniscient who narrates? Are you able to gather the period referred to? Tone: Does the tone vary and does it influence content? Many poems start off on one tone but the by the end, it is quite different. All poems have some point of tension or conflict. Can it be identifies as philosophical, spiritual, social or emotional? How do the poetic elements affect the tension? Does remain or is it resolved by the end?
Context: What is the historical, social or political background of the poem? Does the poet have any professed views that affect his treatment of the poem?
Language: The choice of words can be a key to understanding the better. Is it casual or formal? Are dialectal forms of a language used? Does the language influence the emotional appeal? Do the words used have a special connotation? Are they concrete or abstract? What about repetitions? Rhythm: when you read a poem you may be able to discern a particular rhythm. It could be due to repetitions of sounds (alliteration), stresses or the natural cadence of the language.
Imagery: Most new readers find imagery confusing especially when they are abstract or indicate things strange to you. How does imagery take the poem forward? Are the images figurative or literal? Does understanding the imagery make the whole meaning clear? Does the poem use comparisons and metaphors? The visual imagery or one that appeals to your senses may sometimes be repeated. Does the image stand for something else in other words are they symbolic. Some symbols have universal meaning but some are personal or specific to a region or community.
Form: The format of a poem can tell you much about it as certain formats like ode, sonnets, haikus etc are used for a particular kind of subject. See if the lines are arranged formally or there is freedom in arrangement. Rhyme schemes point to an elaborate style of construction. Consistent rhyme schemes are used for specific purposes.
Syntax: Finally, take a look at the syntactical choices made by the poet. The lines could have a grammatical end or an enjambment which is a stop before a complete meaning is formed. There could be end stops which is a stop at the conclusion of a sentence. Verbs could be passive or active. See how the tenses are used. Does the poem move between tenses? Are the sentences complete or are they fragments? The punctuation used can indicate the direction in which the poet’s thoughts are moving.