The best tip on reading poetry I picked up when studying English at Liverpool University was from a lovely, quirky, thoughtful tutor, then Doctor, now Professor, Philip Davis.
I’ll always credit him with teaching me how to read at the age of 20 or so. I’m not meaning how to spell out the words: I was on an English degree course, so I could usually manage that.
He helped me become more alert to the moments when the meaning of a poem remains stubbornly submerged or obscure. We think we’ve grasped what the writer is saying. We could just carry on, yet some instinct tells us there’s more than meets the eye.
We just need some kind of starting point that will help us tease the meaning out. In a decent poem, we can be sure it’s hidden in plain sight, waiting for us.
I paraphrase his advice:
“When reading a poem, look for a long time at whatever seems out of place or troubles you – it may just be one seemingly inappropriate word or phrase. The whole meaning of the poem is likely to turn upon that.”
He went on to explain that poets rarely choose words by accident or carelessly use the wrong ones. So if a word appears strange, ask yourself what you’re missing.
You’ll find this tip works just as well with great prose too.