Most difficulties occur when readers are trying to work out what the poem is about and what the poet is saying. This is often compounded by the fact that a poem can have several subjects and may be saying several different things at the same time. It is therefore important to approach this material with an open mind, prepared to amend your interpretation as things become clearer. It is your response to the poem that matters.
You should bear the following in mind;
- you don't need a first from Oxbridge (or anywhere else) to appreciate difficult verse;
- nobody can be expected to be fully aware of all the references in this material, we all need to look things up;
- some poets write poems that are defiantly strange, this has to be accepted;
- there remains a lurking suspicion that difficult poets are charlatans and their poems are all confidence tricks perpetrated on a gullible readership, this is not the case;
- difficult poetry does require the reader to pay attention, this attentive work of interpretation is an immensely pleasurable and rewarding activity;
- it is a mistake to look solely for 'meaning' in a poem, many difficult poems have several competing themes and meaning will depend to a large extent on the weight that the reader attaches to each of these;
- the internet has made the work of interpretation much easier although care should still be taken with regard to the quality of some information;
- it is possible to be completely baffled by a difficult poem and still derive pleasure from it;
- much of literary theory is less than helpful to readers of difficult verse;
- you should read the poem carefully before you read what others have to say about it, this is really important because it is your view that counts;
- if you find that you don't enjoy the work of interpretation (or that life's too short) then you shouldn't do it;
- paying attention to this material is oddly involving, you will find that your knowledge increases and that you are forced to consider the world in different ways;
- some poets take poetry far too seriously, this degree of intensity can be quite intimidating so it is important to remember that poetry may not hold a privileged position in the arts;
- some poets use obscurity to disguise the fact that they don't have very much to say.
The skills you will need.
You will find that working on interpretation will involve both checking out references,thinking laterally and tolerating ambiguity.I give a brief description of each of these skills below together with links to pages that provide more detail.
Looking up words, names and foreign phrases will take up a lot of your time. The maturing internet is proving to be an increasingly valuable resource but care must be taken with regard to the accuracy of some information. Research can also drag you too far away from the poem so you should be careful about how much information you actually need.
Thinking laterally involves essentially trying to get into the poet's mind-set. This can be done in a number of diferent ways, the most obvious of which is to look at other poems that he or she has written together with any prose (which usually turns out to be about other poets). Some understanding of the poet's biography can also be useful as are interview transcripts.
It is important to look out for deliberate obscurities and formal devices designed to disguise the poet's intention just as it is to recognise when a poet is clearly stating the point of the poem. The best way to comprehend these is to look at other poems by that paticular poet to see if they share the same characteristics, it's also important (but not essential) to get some idea of a poet's views and opinions.
Some poets are engaged in a struggle with language at a very 'deep' level and their poems are a reflection of this struggle. This is why the poems of Paul Celan and J H Prynne are considered to be so very difficult to understand. I have found that the best way to tackle this really complex stuff is to try and understand the rationale behind the struggle and to work out whether this makes sense to you.