Many students find poetry a real challenge and try to avoid it. This creates a vicious circle: the more poetry is avoided, the worse its challenge seems to be.
Poetry can be difficult, but so can any art form. An understanding of how it works is a first step to getting to grips with it; just as understanding the basics of a car helps in learning to drive it.
An art form
Poetry is one of the oldest art forms of language. Ancient fragments of writing have often been in verse form. Certainly this is true of Old English. In the oral tradition, verse form is easier to remember, and its verbal rhythms can be accompanied by music to make performance a powerful tool in shaping a culture's consciousness.
Basically, poetry consists of language patterned by beats or stresses (rhythm) and by sound (rhyme, alliteration). It also consists of words and images that convey imaginative force to its message or content. Sound and imagery are of equal importance: their weaving together is the artistry.
The following sections will help to unlock the secrets of both of these components. You will be familiar with both. Nursery rhymes appeal to children (do you still remember their appeal?) because of both the obvious sounds and rhythms and the unexpected and vivid images they contain. Think of ‘nursery rhyme' rather than ‘difficult'!
So where is the difficulty?
Poetry does not have to be difficult, any more than crossword puzzles have to be. But some of it is. Usually the difficulty stems from the fact that poetry is a condensing medium, whereas prose is an expansive one.
This means that poetry uses very few words to convey often quite complex states of being or ideas, whereas prose typically tries to unpack difficult concepts or thoughts, repeating another way if necessary. Images particularly condense emotions, but words themselves are often used with several different meanings (deliberate ‘ambiguity') or associations. Sometimes, too, unusual ideas are linked together in a way which does not always make sense, whereas prose tries to logically connect one idea to another, and show you the steps taken in between.
As with most skills: the more you try, the more you will progress. So keep at it!