Here, then, is a handy rubric for ways to read poetry. It won't work with everybody, i.e., you'll have a hard time applying it to Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, but it will help get you through.
Step One; Read the title. Yes, I know this is obvious. You'd be amazed at how many people just skip right over it. They read the words, but they don't allow the words to register. Titles are important. "Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner" tells you everything you need to know, right there.
Step Two: Read the poem all the way through, out loud, without stopping but with -- and this is REALLY important -- the pauses in the right places, where the punctuation is. Pausing at the end of every line is a common mistake, and it makes the poem more confusing than it has to be. The punctuation is there to guide you, so let it.
Step Three: Stop and register your impression of what was said. Make a note if you need to. You'll probably revise this, but first impressions are important with poetry.
Step Four: Read the poem again, slowly, silently, and make sure you know what all the words mean. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Who is the speaker?
- What is the setting?
- What is happening, or being discussed, in the poem?
- What kind of rhyme or meter does the poem have?
- Does anything strike you as symbolic, or metaphorical?
- What tone does the poem have -- joyous, melancholy, playful, serious?
Step Five: Paraphrase. Put the poem in your own words. It proves that you understand it. Be careful not to change the meaning, though. If you can't paraphrase part of it, then you know you don't understand that part. If you can't paraphrase ANYTHING, repeat steps one through four, expecting different results. (Isn't that the definition of madness?)
If we did this with, say, "In a Station of the Metro," we might discover that we have no idea who the speaker is (that's Modernism for you), the setting is a Parisian subway stop, people are walking past, the poem has no rhyme scheme, and there's a metaphor here, but it's purely visual. The tone of the poem is artsy, and we might paraphrase it by saying "The pale, blank faces of people getting off the trains look just like the petals of blossoms on a wet tree branch."
Admittedly, this takes all the charm right out of it, but you could argue that Pound doesn't have a lot of charm to begin with. It still helps.