Just sent this to HAVOK, seeing as he's got this poetry bug happening. Seeing as he's a musician, I figured it might help his cause to look at poetry as a piece of music and have a crack at breaking it's code. (Which is what music is - a sound code, like morse code but way more complex.)
Take one Shakespeare Sonnet:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
1. Figure out the rhyming pattern of the ends of the lines - best to use A for the first line, then when you get to the next one that ends on the same rhyme, mark that as A too and so on.
Then go to the next line down from the first A, mark that as B, and all the others that rhyme the same, then the next is C, and so on, till you've got the pattern. This is the structure that will hold your poem up, like the staff of music, and which gives a clue to the kind of sound you are about to hear - the shape of it.
2. Then figure out the beat, - ie, say it out loud, and listen for the morse code of it: da daa da daa da daa da daaaaaaa, etc, and mark the daa (the stressed syllable) with an *. Then count them up and see how many you get per line.
This number of beats per line is the bar in music notation. It holds the metre, or foot. I rather like the idea of that word, because it implies bodily movement - walking pace, marching, waltzing, running. The more beats to cram into a line, the faster it has to be said before you get to take a breath.
3. Now that you have established that framework, then you start looking for the tune, at the actual notes themselves - the words, and how they all flow to form not only a combination of sounds, but each with a space ( a visual rest) in between, which gives them meaning in relation to each other. Then you have slightly longer ones - commas, colons, full stops, which act as brackets around groups of words, making sentences. This is your melody.
4. Once you've got that pulled apart, that's where you start to look for the emotion that a poem carries, in the same way that music does - it's softness, or loudness, and all the other ways 'of playing' , expressed by allegro and pronto and largo at the top of a piece of sheet music. In the same way that notes have colour and vibrancy and sombreness and rumbling that will get you on a gut level, so do words. There are incidental words that give gramatical structure, these are the intervals - but the verbs and nouns are the notes and adverbs and adjectives indicate the way they are played.
Then, write down in the column beside the poem all the other words and feelings and images you associate with the words in the poem.
5. Once you've done that, you'll start to see a larger patten - ideas emerge! These are the harmonies, and out of them grows the big orchestral noise of poetry. Ideas will group themselves around a group of sentences that fall in certain parts of the structure, and the more sonnets you read, you'll start to see that they tend to be aranged that way all the time, in the ame way that you know in a song that the verse will contain the narrative drive, the chorus will repeat the main theme.
6. Once you start feeding your own associations into the poem in an effort to fathom what the thing is about, that is when you really start to hear it. Then, in the process of listening to it over and over (soon enough it will play in your head) you can hit replay anytime you want. It has built into it it's own recording mechanism. The mind latches itelf into the "sonnet" pattern and that is the groove into which your memory slots its stylus and voila! You can recite it.
7. Now you have learned how to listen to the sonnet, now that the pattern is firmly established in your mind, then you'll want to play the mind game back the other way and have a crack at dashing off a few yourself.
A poem is the sound of one hand clapping without an ear that can hear its music.
The best and most pleasurabe poetry is the stuff that demands as much of it's reader's input as it's author's. Both are equal in the transaction. That is why reading poetry gets to humans - it is a moment in time where anyone can be an artist. It only requires a litle bit of understanding of how it works s to beable to hear it at full volume.