I think you did extremely well Michaela.
This isn't like a formula or some fact that you suddenly understand like in math. This is about trying to see poetry as a way of communicating beyond just the words. The images in poems, the sounds, language and tone can combine to create effects that you feel, but which can be quite difficult to explain in words.
After all, think of it in this way, metaphor is about using something that isn't there to describe something that is. Let's look at an example:
"The surface of the lake was slate"
Clearly the surface of the lake isn't literally slate, but by describing it as slate the writer immediately gives a picture of stillness, flatness, greyness, coldness.
He could have said "The surface of the lake was cold grey flat and smooth, hard looking, indestructible, and the air so still" - but even this long winded adjective heavy explanation doesn't convey the depth of meaning that the simple metaphor does.
I hope you see how elegant and effective metaphor can be when used well and with originality.
Sometimes I find it helpful when reading a poem not to focus too deeply on the individual words and phrases to begin with, but to try and let the whole poem "surround" me. I try to get my analytical self out of the way and just feel what emotions it raises in me. That can often be a good guide to the direction the poet is going in. Then only after doing that do I start to look in more detail at the language etc.
I thought you caught the metaphor in "The Year the Rice-Crop Failed" perfectly.
The writer was using the technique I mentioned earlier of "extended metaphor". Shortly I want you to write a poem using extended metaphor so it would pay to study how she did it closely.
You picked up this use of metaphor in your comments. For instance you obviously noticed how the poet signalled to the reader that this poem wasn't just going to be about rice crops right from the word go by slipping in the apparently irrelevant phrase "The year we were married". Why say that? It becomes apparent as the poem progresses that the whole piece is basically about that marriage, and as you rightly said, the traumas it faced in its early days. You get that overall sense of fragility and slight threat all the way through the poem, until the right at the end when hope enters into it, as if everything is strange and new, and weird things are happening that the speaker is having to adapt to. A new way of life that is proving dangerous and challenging maybe. Perhaps this is what it can be like when you embark on a new marriage. A feeling that the old things are going and something new and slightly frightening is starting, and you have no idea how to control it, or where it will lead.
Look how skilfully the writer maintains the metaphor through the whole poem. The fish references do a lot to bind it together. And even when she refers to her husband he moves like "a slow swimmer", "eyes and lips tight with salt"; there is a "mackerel sky", he dresses in a "herringbone suit", "galoshes", and shoes like "slippery otters" - all fishy watery references.
Note the sudden shift after the husband has left from the fish allusions to the "hoarse and angry" crows. About as far away as you can get from the slippery silent denizens of the deep. The reader wonders what the significance of this is.
The other poem was perhaps slightly more visceral and as you rightly pointed out possibly lends itself to a wider variety of interpretations as a result - depending to some extent on what the reader brings to the experience of reading. This is part of the beauty of good poetry; it can speak to different readers in different ways.
I think that the dominant theme of "undressing" for me was the movement in the poem. The way the act of removal is also a progression towards something. The other thing I find compelling is the manner in which the poem opens with relatively insignificant acts of removal - that, for instance, of slipping stiches - a very tiny thing and then slowly moves towards more momentous removals, until the poet tells us that apparently all there is is earth air rain and the "casual sun".
That word casual gets me every time. Why do you think the sun is "casual" - doesn't it imply a certain confidence, a certain nonchalance that in the face of all the doings of man and nature the sun will continue forever casually burning away. And yet we know that even the sun itself is not eternal - it will eventually die away. So what is the poet saying here. Is she implying that nothing is eternal, or is she maybe using the sun as the closest metaphor she can for eternity.
In any event this is one of those poems where it is perhaps most useful to look closely at the ending. Are we not seeing here the poet using the act of undressing as a metaphor for the return of all things (humans included) eventually to the earth and to nature. "Yes it will come" she says - note the use of "will" implying inevitability - and we understand that what is coming is that inevitable merging of ourselves with our creator, be it material or spiritual. And of course the whole poem as been leading up to this - the simple act of undressing suggesting a removal of the old and imperfect to reveal the perfect "something soft, unshelled, unstained".
There is an awful lot more in this poem which I haven't time to look at now, but also note the lavish use of images. Not vague adjectival references but pictures of things you can SEE - TOUCH - SMELL - TASTE.
Ok when you've read the poems again a few 10's of times and read what I've just said a number of times too (if you can bear to ), you will be ready to start on your own poem using the technique extended metaphor and employing concrete (as opposed to abstract) nouns (just ask me if you don't know what I'm talking about).
Before you start out writing I'd like you to observe.
Check out things you see around you today, tomorrow and write down in a notebook or on paper anything that catches your attention or interests you (or anything from the last couple of weeks). I'm talking about actual things happening NOT your own feelings or thoughts, but incidents around you, preferably things that startle you or amuse you or upset you or create some burst of interest in you.
When you've done that pick a few - the best - and write a couple of lines, just in ordinary prose, in this thread describing each of them. Try to have at least 5.
Hopefully we'll be able to move on from there. If not then it will be back to close observation. Close observation is something poets should be doing ALL the time.