You were assigned to read the poems of W.B. Yeats, which worried you. Poetry was like an uncharted territory in the universe until you looked through the booklet that was given to you. There were more poets to study during the term, which gave you trepidation. You happened to be an esoteric teenager, which was unusual in your neighborhood (or so you think). You suspected that it might be one of the reasons why you were given an unconditional offer in the English Department, but you were also interested in movies other than Hollywood blockbusters.
Your tutor suggested Laurence Olivier's "Hamlet", which quite surprised you. Olivier's script was the closest thing to Elizabethan English, and you were the last person to claim that you understand every scene. The brooding castle, which was located in Denmark, helped you make the right guess. And then there was "Bright Star". A short-lived affair between Fanny Brawne and John Keats, an aloof poet whom you would study next year. You didn't like sad endings, and this romantic drama (and Olivier's adaptation of Shakepeare's tragedy) didn't help you a bit. You might be trying too hard.
Your coursemate suggested "How to Read Poetry Like a Professor" by Thomas Foster, claiming that this hands-on version of "Poetry for dummies" had enabled him to manage the coursework. It might have worked for someone who seemed to get the hang of verses, but you weren't sure of it. After all, Foster's "How to Read Literature Like a Professor" made you wondered if you would pursue an academic career. You have decided against it before you started your freshmen year. You were even uncertain about applying for a graduate degree. It seems too far away, as you still try to find the right way in reading a poem. It's not different from novels, and you should have figured it out.
You only need to look at it differently, and it's not hard to accept it. Many poems are a few pages long, and you haven't opened the cover of "Iliad" (or "The Pilgrim's Progress"). What you are about to read are rather simple instructions, which doesn't guarantee a light-bulb moment. Practice helps you read between the lines, though.
5 Steps to Overcome Intimidation
Treat the words of the poem like any written text. No pressure in this task, which requires a casual approach to a poem. You must not sleep late, which could affect your focus if you rise up early. You should find out the best time of the day to read such a material. Some students are more diligent than the others, preferring to read it at night time. They might be thinking that they would guess the poet's message after a good night's sleep, but it won't be the usual outcome. It can make you better prepared for your examination, though.
Read the sentences carefully. This task should remind you of the distinctive difference between a poem and a novel (or short story). Reading the first few chapters won't give you a clear idea of what the novelist is writing about. On the other hand, the sentence is the basic unit of a poem. Read a line, and then pause for a moment. What is the first thing that comes to mind? If you don't have a clue, then proceed to the next line. Repeat the procedure. Recall the previous line. If you're still in a blurred state of mind, then read the next line (and then pause for a moment). Do it until you have a vague impression of the poem.
Pay attention to the punctuation marks. You take it for granted especially when you're reading a book of several hundred pages. You must not be faulted for it, but you can't do the same thing to a poem. A poet puts it for a reason. You must read the lines closely, keeping in mind that the absence of punctuation marks convey a meaning as well. This leads to the next step.
Read the poem aloud. You won't do this task to annoy your roommate (or your dorm mate in the next room). It rather heightens your awareness of the poem. Don't be surprised if an idea comes to mind while hearing the sound of your own voice. Stop for a moment, as you try to remember that thought. And then jot it down on the notepad. Resume what you're doing until you become aware of another thought.
Do another reading. You won't do this kind of thing on a very long novel like "Moby Dick", but a poem is another kind of written material. After reading it aloud, repeat the step sans the noise. You might notice how you're able to handle this exercise better.
Reading a poetry can be compared to performing an experiment in a laboratory. You're bound to get concrete results in the latter, as there are theories governing experiments. There's no such thing in poetry, which makes it exciting to do. Imagination expresses itself, and there are many ways that the other imagination receives it. You might not get it right on your first try, but don't get discouraged at all. You'll keep on doing it until you become good at it. And then you won't worry about the pressure (of the coursework).