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First, understand that the point of poetry is to use language in new, strange and sometimes shocking ways. Poets do this not to frustrate us readers, but to squeeze new life out of the old, boring words we use everyday. Remember that poems always ask to be read multiple times, and that no one "gets them" on the first read.
Second, you can try this mnemonic device: SIFTT Q & A. "S" stands for SPEAKER. Who is the speaker of this poem? The poet herself or a character she has created? "I" stands for IMAGES. Try to find the important sensory details around which the poem is organized. "F" stands for FORM. Notice how the poem's lines and stanzas (like poetry paragraphs) are broken. Assume that the poet has a specific reason for breaking the lines and stanzas as they do. Does the topic shift in a new stanza? "T" is for title, often a crucial clue to the poem's meaning. "T" is also for TONE. Is the poem dark, witty, bitter, ecstatic? "Q & A" stands for -- you guessed it! -- QUESTION and ANSWER. Poems often pose, and sometimes answer, critical questions.
Lastly, remember that the best poems are not easy to read, but they are tremendously rewarding. Once you've spent some time with a poem, you might find that it opens itself up to you -- and then you'll feel like you've won the lottery.*
*If you are a literature geek like me!
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