The Basics.

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;

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.