1. What does the poem LOOK like?
Whether you come across a poem in print, online or in an ebook, the first thing you’ll notice is its form (its shape, length and overall appearance). You’ll quickly be able to tell whether it’s free verse, a quatrain, villanelle, sonnet, and so on. So what do you notice first? Fourteen lines of iambic pentameter? Three four-line stanzas? A mushroom? A tree? Does anything strike you as different or unique? Are there any immediate clues as to what the poem might be trying to do? For example, notice the times scattered throughout Caroline Birds’ ‘Sentinel of Anything’: “4.08am a suspicious beep” … “4.33am bedsit smells” … “6.15am air is visibly dancing”. It is clear from first glance that the speaker will be taking you through a series of significant instances. You won’t understand the significance of these instances until the end of the poem – and maybe not even then – but a quick first glance over the poem’s body before making a start can provide us with helpful hints.
2. What does the poem’s TITLE tell you?
Titles are sometimes the most difficult part of writing a poem. You may have everything finished except that one line before all others, that label, which you know needs to stand on its own as well as provide, if not a key to the poem to come, at least a first taste or gentle and confiding push into its complex space. Take for example Sharon Olds’ poem ‘I Go Back to May 1937’. This title quite clearly sets us up for a dose of the past. Something may have happened to the speaker and he or she wishes to relate it. If this title were instead simply ‘May 1937’, it would suggest a certain detachment from the time mentioned. With the speaker personally going back to that time, there is immediately his or her connection to it. (In this particular poem Sharon Olds is, as usual, the speaker, and she is immersing herself in that time as a means of investigating her parents’ early relationship, ultimately bringing it out into the light of present understanding, seemingly for closure.)
3. How does the poem START?
Often, as with the start of a novel or short story, the first line has been carefully crafted to pack a punch; to provide a launch into the bulk of the poem. The first line often contains in a few words the first example or introduction to a particular style of language, punctuation, tone, point of view etc.
4. WHO wrote the poem?
Though there are outlets (magazines, ezines etc.) that specifically publish poems anonymously, most poems you’ll come across will have a name attached to them. This is useful: sometimes doing a little research into that name can turn up some helpful clues as to what he or she is trying to say; why they’re saying it; where they’re coming from. A name can provide us with the context we need to fully understand what were the initial drive and emotions behind the poem.
5. Have I spent enough TIME reading the poem?
Chances are, if you’ve arrived at the end of the last line, confused and unmoved, you may need to read it again – then again, then two more times. There may be something you missed. Maybe it takes five reads for that certain repetition to hit home, or the juxtaposition of those two lines or words to sink in. There’s truly a lot going on in a well-crafted poem and it can take some time to fully appreciate and to notice it all – maybe you never will. Some poems have been studied for years and might still be misunderstood. But that isn’t to say that if you’ve read the poem a hundred times and are no closer to appreciating it you’ve failed. Maybe that particular poem just isn’t for you. Not all of them are. You’ll come across poems you love, like, dislike, maybe even hate. There’s no telling. Just make sure you give it time. No matter the poem, each deserves its due.