Reading Poetry and Cloud Watching
Students seem to feel increased pressure when a class turns to poetry, and they often try far too hard to read the poem. They've gotten caught up in the idea that a poem has A meaning, one absolute, determinable meaning, and if they don't get it (what they think the teacher wants out of the poem), they're wrong. Right and wrong don't disappear completely when reading poetry, but they certainly become broader and more flexible. Rules relax, and so should the reader. Sometimes it's best to treat poetry more like cloud watching just a few minutes before sundown.
Cloud watching can't be forced. The harder you try to make a cloud look like a walrus, the more it looks like a cloud. For cloud watching, you kick back, relax, and let your mind wander into that state where it's open and playful. When you learn to trust your brain to do what it's there for, you suddenly see more with far less effort and little or no stress. Suddenly the sky fills with dragons morphing into terriers and teddy bears. Okay, there are days when clouds are too few or too many, but there's always something to be read. I'm particularly fond of wood grains, which is why there's a sideways gremlin staring from the paneling above the computer as I write.
As you play with the clouds, more and more possibilities unfold, and if nobody else quite agrees that one of those clouds is a duck, that's fine. After a while, the sun lowers enough to begin filling the clouds with color, and another new world opens as you feel a revelation coming on. After playing with clouds or poems long enough, ideas and perceptions fall into place to produce the "Aahh" reaction that you get when looking at a beautiful sunset. Look closer, and that aahh starts to fade a bit as you see that the striking red sky is really striking reds and blues, even greens and a few other colors.
That first aahh is pleasant, but it's also a bit dangerous because it feels like a stopping point. I'll admit that when you begin looking closer there comes a stretch where you lose some of the sense of pleasure. You've discovered before that analysis can shatter joy, but what you probably haven't learned is there's a place that analysis can take you to where the first aahh blossoms from pleasure into understanding, a type of understanding that goes well beyond intellect. Sometimes, artists still dare to talk about truth. Truth can never be captured by art or even by nature, for truth in a box isn't truth. What you achieve is the realization that there is truth, and it's something much larger than right or wrong. Oh, and you also get a sense of what the poem is playing with.
Slightly More Specific Approaches, Techniques, and Tricks
When you start reading a poem, try not to be too serious and literal. You'll miss quite a bit of humor, and the ironic, sarcastic twists will go right past you. My father-in-law still remembers the college exam when he took Robert Browning too seriously. Of course, the other side of that advice is don't overlook the literal possibilities too quickly in favor of radical symbolic translations.
Read much the same way you listen to music. Many of the songs out at any given time have more going on in the lyrics than you suspect, but you don't start out listening by reading a line and trying to figure out what the author meant. You listen. Mostly you listen to the rhythm and you catch a word or line here and there. The more you listen to the song, the more you begin to notice, and if you actually pull out a lyric sheet and read the words you get a few surprises. Poetry is based on sound at least as much as any form of music.
Most of you have probably never had the pleasure of listening to someone who's really good at reading poetry. I was lucky because I had James Nichols for a modern poetry class during my second go as an undergraduate. He not only read poetry well, he absolutely loved reading poetry out loud, and that joy came across to at least part of the class. Of course, the poems never seemed as good when I tried to read them back in my room, but I had proof in my head of what poetry could be. To add to that, at least twice I've started reading a piece to Ginny to show her just how bad the writing was only to discover that hearing made all the difference. Sylvia Plath's "Daddy" may be the best example of such results.
Check out the library and the internet, and you'll be able to find readings of many of the poems you're likely to encounter in class. Listen to a variety, especially different people doing the same poem. You'll find big differences, and you'll find they affect the effect the poem has on you. It can be interesting to find poets reading their own work, but don't assume that they do the best readings. Dylan Thomas and some others read quite well, but I've also heard poets who need extensive elocution lessons.
Now, even though your roommates will think you're nuts, play around with reading a poem out loud, and I do mean play. Don't just do it monotone. Tinker with voice and rhythm, everything from serious to outrageous. Read it like the evening news, and read it along with a favorite song. Don't be too surprised to discover that most poems will actually match rhythms fairly well with some songs. You don't have to read the entire poem in each voice. Just try a few lines until you get familiar with them. Once you find the best voice and rhythm, read the rest of the poem in that style.
When you really listen, you'll realize that you don't always treat the end of a line as the end of a sentence. Sometimes there's a pause, and sometimes there isn't, and it makes one heck of a difference when you start tying lines together properly, (properly meaning in a way that works, not necessarily the way the author may or may not have intended). A lot of meaning can wrap around those words going from the line break to the next line, especially a lot of ambiguity caught up in how the words play upon one another. The word at the end of the line is often a powerful point, a word that may have a strong connotation by itself or in conjunction with the previous phrase, and then when read with the first word of the next line, meaning and connotation may shift radically. There you are with the first impression and the second, a conflict between expectation and fulfillment. The trick is not trying to choose between one meaning or another. What's often more important is how the differences play upon one another. Meaning isn't in the words; meaning is in how the words interact with each other and cause a reaction in your mind. Words act like chemicals, giving off energy with the proper mix and catalyst. The energy they give off is what causes your mind to generate possibilities and bring meaning into being, but meaning is always in the mind, not on the page.
If you get really stuck or just don't know where to start, go to the basics. Students who have trouble with a poem often claim that they don't understand any of it at all, but I've never found that to be true. Find a word you know. There's bound to be a "the" in there somewhere. If you note each individual word you're somewhat familiar with (NOT that you could write the dictionary definition), you'll find several steady points to stand on. Now, let's go ahead and be literal. What's happening in the poem in the most basic sense? Who are the characters? What action is taking place? What's the setting? What's the plot? Not all the questions will make any sense at all with every poem, but sometimes just eliminating some possibilities by asking the question will help simplify the issues. (My first advice was take the poem as a whole, not pieces. The back-up plan is take the poem as the smallest possible pieces, not a whole.)
Look at the answers with the words you know, and ask yourself does this make any sense? Why or why not? If I reverse it completely, do pieces fall into place? Am I looking for the wrong thing? I've found that some students don't "get" a poem or like it because it doesn't make them happy. Oops, now there's a problematic expectation. Quite often when art makes you angry, sad, sick, confused, or some other seemingly negative emotion, that's just what it's trying to do. Sometimes that's all it's specifically trying to do. Poetry is often about a state of mind, a state of being, an emotion, a way of seeing. Those all have meaning, but they don't have meaning that can be summarized in a nice, tidy thesis statement. Most ideas that can actually be squeezed into a thesis statement aren't really worth writing about anyway.
Life is untidy. That's why we spend so much time and energy trying to tidy it up. That's part of why so many teaching and testing methods are based on set concepts of right/wrong or true/false. They make life tidy and easy to grade. We love to bring order from chaos. It's one of the most basic drives for all of us, not just artists. We tend to do it in different ways, poetry, nursing, teaching, accounting, but we have to remember that the order we impose is always a temporary and artificial extraction from the larger picture. According to Chaos Theory, there's really no such thing as chaos, only forms of order too complex for us to understand (at least in some branches of Chaos Theory). Short of achieving total enlightenment, we can't conceive of the universe as a whole and still carry on our daily lives, so we find ways to freeze and express elements for a moment here and there.
Poetry may frustrate you now, but give it a chance and it can help you find your balance. You'll also find some poems that help you regain that balance when storms and stress turn the familiar world into Oz or Hell. Out of the storm, you can refreeze a moment of understanding, can some degree of order in the chaos, long enough to take a deep breath and put pieces back in place. Come to think of it, if some people out there knew just what a powerful weapon or defense poetry and other art can be, they probably wouldn't let us teach it in school. Plato definitely didn't trust poets (which is some of my evidence that Plato was a twit), and there have been various administrators, business people and parents who've fought against art in the past. So be a rebel, read poetry.