Everyone has had that moment—a vibrant shining memory that reaches for your shoulder, reaching to turn you around. If you close your eyes, you might return there now. Sometimes it is the single moment that shaped your life—love, an achievement, a decision. More often they are small moments quickly forgotten—dreams that fade like rainbows, a hawk wings spread just so, a smile that catches its eyes aflame.
These are the moments we have to start with in order to understand poetry. It does us no good to discuss rhyme schemes, iambic pentameter, the rules of free verse (and there are rules), or even the images that poets use, if we do not first understand what those images and poetic devices are trying to touch on.
You see poetry tries to use words to describe those moments that leave you without any. It seeks the rhythm your heart found once, but never found again. Even at its most philosophical, poetry lays claim to concepts that philosophy wrung dry. and drinks deeply. I could say that poetry is about expressing the inexpressible, and that would be half true but too trite. The inexpressible is exactly that and good poetry knows it and stops short of attempting a comprehensive report.
All the trappings—the rhymes, the sounds of words—are trying to get back to that moment in memory, that concept that’s just out of reach. Those moments remain with us, catch our gaze, because they remind us, if only for an instant, that the world is bigger than we comprehend. Poetry probes into that incomprehension like a child probes into the infinity of space as he lays in bed, not because poetry wishes to define and categorize but because beyond, within, and surrounding us are things more vast and beautiful than we dream of.
To return to the question of this post, “How do we understand poetry?” the answer begins with those moments. Approach every poem asking, what moment or idea is this poem trying to probe? Then begin to notice how the poem prods at it. Does the poet poke at death with rhymes? Does she forgo all capitalization when she discusses joy, why? Do not forget to listen to the words - do they tell a story, paint a picture, or count the ways? How do the meaning and sound of the words interact?
Finally pay attention to yourself. Do you understand, do you not understand? Do you catch a glimpse of what the poet saw, or do you see something that perhaps they did not intend. Can you wrap up the poem into something you can understand and enumerate, or are you faced with something so beautiful you wish only to let it alone and wonder? When I seek to understand poetry, the latter is what I am looking for.