First and foremost, it is very important that you don't panic! It can be incredibly intimidating being faced with a complex and cryptic piece of writing, and it can be very easy to give up when it seems inpenetrable. But worry not! Therein might lie your access to it. Though it is hard to do, try to embrace this complexity, question why it might be so difficult, and work slowly through it. It can be made easier to think of it as a puzzle or a riddle that you have to decode; you never know what you are going to find.
So you have been given a poem. First of all, read it more than once. Something that seems to make absolutely no sense on a first reading might suddenly present itself to you on the second or third try. Once you have decided what the poem is talking about (be that walking through the woods or the loss of a loved one, whatever it may be) you can start to look more closely, and to analyse. I'm going to give you a poem, and show you step by step how I would go through it in a basic way, and ooooo, it's a good one. (Remember, you could potentially spend years on a single poem, finding out new things about it and analysing it endlessly, so don't worry if it feels like you haven't covered everything in your small time frame! You can, at the end of the day, only do your best.)
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
BY ROBERT FROST
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
On a first reading of this, the general 'story-line' can be seen to be a man taking a walk in the woods at night. Not that interesting right? But a literal interpretation is the first step on what might be seen as a long but rewarding archealogical dig. We have pierced the first layer, and are closer to understanding this poem. Don't worry if you think it is too simple to just write down what the poem seems to be literally saying to you. It isn't wrong, because it's doing just that. But what, based on this, can we then deduce? It's time to get more technical, and interrogate more thoroughly various techniques used that might lead to a more symbolic, suggested meaning. These are, of course, more subjective than the objective surface truth, and vary depending of personal emotive responses to the poem. This means nothing you say can be wrong, but marks can only be picked up if your points are clearly explained and backed up with evidence.
The language of the poem reveals a great deal about it. You might say that "watching the woods fill up with snow" represents the ambiguous traveller reflecting on his life and the process of old age. He may have reached the winter of his long life (represented by this mysterious night-time journey we are observing) as the "snow" shows. How is this man feeling then? He describes the evening as "the darkest evening in the year." Our literal interpretation of this induces strong and beguiling imagery, but further investigation might suggest that the man is weary or depressed, and is deeply contemplating a life long lived. This is further evidenced by the elucidating final lines "the woods are lovely, dark and deep". He is enticed by them, as if they provide some ethereal slumber that he is not quite able to reach. There ether seems to slowly be luring him towards them. Do they perhaps represent death?
Or maybe not. That's up to you. The final lines, however "miles to go before I sleep" suggest a tiredness and a willingness to let go. What does the repetition suggest? Resignation? Contemplation? And what of the rhyme scheme? Does the rhythm suggest the rhythm of his life? Or the movement of the horses footsteps?
The key to analysing a poem is to give it the time and attention it needs. Though technical terms like Onomatopoaeia and enjambment etc etc might seem like technical jargon to impress the examiners (which in some ways, yes they do) they can actually be crucial tools used by a poet to express an idea or a theme that you can deduce. The more than you can pull from each line of a poem that backs up what you think it's about, the better. Just take your time and take it line by line, paying close attention to the language, the imagery, the rhyme scheme and any other linguistic manouvres that might present themselves to you.