Some people think poetry is a mystical art, that one either “gets it” or does not. As with any art form, though, poetry must be engaged on its own terms. A poem and a piece of prose may both be written in English (of French, or Russian, or whatever), but they are not written with the same language. Understanding a poem’s meaning is a matter of learning its distinct use of language, how its words operate beyond their meanings.
In prose, words are signifiers, often directly linked to an intended signified (the word cow, for instance, will refer to a bovine farm animal that gives milk). But in poetry, words can also serve as metaphors, small parts of a larger image, or to create rhythm and rhyme to deepen the greater theme and/or experience of the piece. They can even deepen the experience with their sounds more than their definitions.
Consider this short passage from The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe: “…the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain/ Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before…”
The poem’s famous sing-song rhythm leads many to rush through the stanzas to reach the next rhyme. By slowing down, however, we can see the language at work between rhymes. Notice how the first line evokes three of the five senses with the words, silken, rustling, and purple. We know the feel of the curtains, what they sound like, and what they look like. And the words even model the sound for us.
Poe uses consonance, the repetition of consonant sounds, here the “s,” to make the curtains audible. Read “silken sad uncertain,” slowly and aloud to hear the effect. It’s followed with the word “rustling” which is onomatopoeia, a word that imitates the sound it’s referring to. Read the whole line once more to hear the curtains moving through the very words that describe them.
The next line is a sharp change of mood. We jump from the gentle rustling of curtains to the terror they inspire in the speaker’s imagination. The quick rhyme of “Thrilled me—filled me” is trochaic (a stressed syllable, “Thrilled/filled” followed by an unstressed one, “me”). Pronouncing these words after the soft “s” sounds of the previous line gives the reader an abrupt up down, up down sensation. And it’s followed by the hard “t” consonance of “fantastical terrors…” This second line stands in stark contrast to the first. By reading the two together, the occurrences and their effects on the speaker are expressed through the same multitasking words.
This level of understanding in a poem doesn’t come from a first read, and until you gain practice, it won’t come from a second or third. Good poetry doesn’t give up all of its secret at once. That is the beauty of poetic language. But no one “just doesn’t get” poetry. Some just need the patience to encounter each piece of writing on its own terms. Look up The Raven, when you have time. Read it first for story if it helps, taking in the words at face value. Then read it again more slowly, unpacking each line to appreciate the effect the words create beyond their meaning.