reading writing

On Understanding Poetry, or Failing To

I mentioned that I took a free, local poetry class last year, and one of the really excellent things about it was that the teacher asked lots of insightful and provocative questions, and I found myself thinking much more about my assumptions about what poetry does and how to read it than I do on my own.

I also mentioned that I prefer to read poetry I find 5-20% incomprehensible, not 80-100%. (If, as with Wallace Stevens, excellent teaching renders the 90% incomprehensible 10% incomprehensible instead—I am most glad).

One question that poetry class raised that’s just plain itchy for me is how much and (probably more important) how you have to understand poetry to get anything worthwhile out of it. My teacher (and other poets and teachers of poetry) suggest that understanding the “meaning” of poetry is not actually required and searching for it may not even be desirable–see, for instance, this lovely Billy Collins poem, quoted in Annie Finch’s A Poet’s Craft.

In A Poet’s Craft (if I recall correctly; it’s been a while since I’ve read it), Finch writes about the importance of listening to the sounds of poetry as opposed to dissecting poems for meaning (something she says, I believe, that high school teachers sometimes do in a way that ruins poetry for their students). Finch suggests that we read poetry slowly, savoring its sounds and meditating on the effects the sounds have on us. Maybe this shows that I’m a prose writer at heart, but listening to the sound of a poem while ignoring the sense feels much duller and more coldly intellectual than attending to the sense and letting the sound fall into the background; ideally one does neither, but I would much rather do the latter than the former. (If I’m really in the mood for non-representational sound, I’ll listen to Vaughan Williams.)

I simply cannot read a beautiful poem that seems to be saying all sorts of things in clever, intricate ways without wanting to know what things it’s saying. I can appreciate the imagery. I can enjoy the sound, sometimes (word-music really is a weak point with me—I enjoy it intensely at its more obvious, as in Poe’s “The Bells,” but its subtler incarnations go over my head or under my radar, and even when I try very hard to pay attention to it, the observations I come up with feel artificial and arbitrary).

In reality, I expect I’m talking about two different things here. One is where poets attempt to say definite things in oblique or indirect or grammatically complex ways.

For example (I’ve taken out my Vendler-edited Dickinson volume again), Dickinson begins a poem

Much madness is divinest Sense
To a discerning Eye—
Much Sense —the starkest Madness—
‘Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail—

I, being a touch dense, read this as “Much madness is divinest sense to a discerning eye; much sense is the starkest madness–indeed, the majority of sense is starkest madness. In this, as all, prevail….[the rest of the poem, which, note, comes out completely confusing and ungrammatical].” Vendler points out that the meaning is instead “Much madness is divinest sense to a discerning eye; much sense is the starkest madness; the majority prevail in defining madness, as they prevail in all.”

I suspect that people who claim that poetry has no set meaning, period, who claim (in essence) that my interpretation here is as good as Vendler’s, are merely giving the reader a pass on doing the hard work of ferreting out a poem’s meaning. Those people might point out that author intent is inaccessible and irrelevant—and I can only answer that 1) we can, however, make educated guesses, knowing we will sometimes be wrong but knowing also that things like grammar can give us powerful clues and 2) I, personally, care a lot more about what Emily Dickinson meant than about what critics can construct from her poetry without paying attention to either its grammar or its function as some kind of communication between Dickinson and her readers (I’d make an exception for cases where the critics are truly formidable creative intellects themselves, but their criticism in a case like that would be much more like its own form of art).

Of course, even with this kind of meaning, where the author had something definite in mind, sometimes perceptive critics will not have enough information to make a good guess about what is meant—something that can be deliberate on an author’s part, though it isn’t always.

But sometimes poets simply aren’t referring to anything specific, or they’re trying to arouse a specific emotional response that is not equivalent to any logical statement, or they’re trying to ask a question with deliberate ambiguities. Diane Mehta points out in SparkNotes How to Write Poetry that poets themselves don’t necessarily know what a poem or part of it means.

The poem that stands out to me as an excellent example of this kind of ambiguity is Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” which sticks like glue in my head even though I have my suspicions that the logic of its movement has more to do with the opium dream from which it reputedly arose than with any abstract construction. I am of the impression that a great deal of contemporary poetry deliberately does not mean things simply but rather invites readers to explore how meaning is made.

I’m not trying to commit Cleanth Brooks’s “heresy of paraphrase” here, though. He argues, and I very much like the idea that, a poem’s meaning is much richer than any description we can generate of that meaning, however complete. And I’m a bit more relativistic than he is. He claims that any poem has a single, definite if inexpressible-in-prose ideal meaning, whereas I’d argue that there could be a great diversity of reasonable and interesting “inexpressible meanings” generated by a great diversity of readers, even if those readers all share an understanding of the sort of meaning that Vendler’s commentary corrected me on—meaning reflected in grammatical structure of the poem, the definitions of the words used, what the simpler metaphors describe, what the allusions allude to.

Some of the poets who talk about not worrying about understanding poetry may be trying to make the poetry accessible and interesting to people who never will understand it in the simple sense, trying to see what can be gotten out of a poem whose grammatical structure and simpler meanings remain opaque to some of its readers.

But some of these poets probably also ask the readers not to try to collapse deliberate ambiguities into simple propositional statements—to recognize where laying down a single meaning will cramp the emotional and intellectual response to a poem.

Finally, such poets may ask readers to let poems act on them instead of coldly trying to figure out how the poem is trying to act on them. It’s just—I find confusion about a poem’s meaning both misleading and distracting. A poem that I don’t understand doesn’t act on me, or acts on me in entirely unintended and usually inferior ways, when I don’t have a clue about the parts of it that the poet wants me to have a clue about.

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