On Reading Poetry
Mr. Abbot posts something provocative in the comments column of a post below and I thank him both for his generosity of comment and for his deep humility:
I liked the final four lines, but the everything prior to that I'm having a hard time interpreting. Like I said, though, I'm poetically illiterate, so it's probably like a kindergartner trying to solve a high school algebra problem.
And I want to respond first with a profound, and deeply humble, thank you for reading it at all. And then with the following encouragement. The short form is--everyone out there can read any poem there is and appreciate it or not--it is not a reflection on the individual's ability to understand poetry or the on individual. I've had dozens of people scan my site for my insights into "Holy Sonnet 14" and Thomas Hardy's "Total Eclipse." Let me tell you all something--you are all capable of reading these and making them your own. I know your professors don't help you feel confident in this--but take my word for it, you are capable, you needn't share or even believe my insights, as they come from personal experience, not necessarily deep study.
I didn't want to talk about this in the context of the poem involved, because it begins to sound defensive. The point I want to make from this is that our educational system makes people feel poetically illiterate and inept. In truth, poetry is one of the easiest of the writing disciplines to appreciate if you are not concerned with "interpreting" it. Sometimes the images and words are unclear--that is certainly a possibility I must examine in the poem in question as I revise and reconsider, but more often, we are taught to seek what is not necessarily there, to fabricate some web of meaning. T. S. Eliot did us all a serious disservice with "The Waste Land." He stole poetry from the populace and remanded it to the ivory tower.
I am not a poet of the ivory tower school, nor do I particularly relish many such poets. Poetry needs to appeal on a fundamental level--are the images accurate and clean does the language flow? There is no particular skill needed to read a poem. Perhaps you don't immediately absorb all the levels of meaning. But then one wouldn't expect to do so in looking at any text.
Enjoy it first. Listen to the words, read it aloud. I'm not saying my poetry is the best for this. Start with the Keats below and read aloud the Sonnet "To Sleep." Savor the sound of the words and don't worry about interpreting it.
Sometimes things are obscure because they may be too personal. This is likely in the San Antonio Poem--it is a very personal reflection. But poetry IS personal and it is personal both for the poet and for the audience. Even the very best audience cannot make every poem personally their own. Witness my appalling inability to read very many of the moderns. I'm sure even Dylan, who is the among the best of us in the appreciation of poetry, has poets he has difficulty with. This does not mean that the reader is illiterate, merely that not everything speaks to everyone.
But I think my most important advice to anyone reading a poem is--relax. Don't interpret, enjoy. There isn't going to be a quiz. No one is going to cross-examine you to see if you obtained every nuance of meaning. I promise I will not send you an e-mail that asks you if you got the obscure cross reference to a forgotten Irish-Scots expatriate Elizabethan poet in line seven. It doesn't matter if you do. What matters is that you allow yourself the pleasure of enjoying the poetry at the very surface. Swim with it, speak with it, read it aloud. If it has a message for you, listen. If not, don't worry, not everything will.
Edgar Allan Poe is one of my guilty pleasures. I don't know if any of his poetry has any meaning whatsoever outside of the surface of the poem. But when I read something like "The Bells" with a refrain similar to this from the first section:
from "The Bells"
Edgar Allan Poe
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells-
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.
I find that I want to say it, sing it, shout it, play with it. Does it have any great meaning? Perhaps, but even so, so what? Revel! feast! enjoy! That is what poetry is about. We knew that as children and had it torn out of us by relentless teachers who were desperately trying to impart to us a sense that there is another way to enjoy poetry. Many of us came to learn that way, but it is important to remember neither is better nor worse, poetry should be enjoyable on whatever level you try to read it.
So, my advice to readers. Don't worry about interpretation. If you love a poem you will read it and reread it and reread it and it will come to have meaning after meaning after meaning based on your experience of it and your experience of the truths that it tells.
Do we understand every nuance of Psalm 23--I doubt it. But as we have grown, our understanding of it has changed from something like a word-picture (when we were little children) to something portending great comfort and great support.
So, I appreciate the compliment of a good soul reading my poetry and struggling with levels of meaning, but please don't trouble yourself with that. Enjoy the word-picture first, if it appeals, read it again, and accept whatever meaning it may have for you. If it doesn't appeal, if the picture doesn't make sense, don't attribute it to your own deficiencies as a reader, but understand that sometimes communication is imperfect. Poets are imperfect and the poetic craft is such that not every poem is meant for every ear or heart. That is okay. Remember, you probably like some Psalms a great deal more than you like others. Even the grandest poetry inspired by God cannot appeal to every person at every point in life's journey. Please believe me when I say I am not one of the great intellects in the world, anything I write is accessible to nearly everyone, and everyone is welcome. I don't anticipate that all poems will appeal to everyone. Dylan has an extraordinarily broad range of tolerance, appreciating poetry that I find, to put it politely, not to my taste. But in reading what he has posted, I begin to understand that part of my deficiency in taste is a reaction people who wanted me to interpret and "get something out of" the poem, to poseurs who read certain kinds of poetry because it was de rigeur in the prevelant intellectual atmosphere. This is simply the wrong approach. Take heart everyone, poetry really is open to you all, and as you read more and simply move with its rhythms and enjoy its language. You will discover that your ability to read it vastly increases. You may never be one of the foremost poetry critics of the world, but you will find that poetry present a pleasant little occupation for a still moment. After all, you needn't spend the time on a poem that you spend on a novel!
My last word--ENJOY!!!