Don’t worry about that right now, just read the damn poem.
My wife and I went to our first parent-teacher conference when my son was in pre-kindergarten. His teacher spilled the usual preliminaries: our son was bright, enthusiastic about playing with others and happy about learning, curious, yadda, yadda, yadda. As a teacher I awaited the other shoe. Our son, she said in kind, diplomatic terms, was impatient. He wanted the answer right away and wasn’t willing to struggle if he felt she had it and was simply withholding it. He needed to learn to tolerate searching for solutions. I’m not sure much has changed for my son, but he’s hardly alone. Most people loathe the feeling everyone except you already knows the answer. When we asked our son’s pre-K teacher what we should do, she said, “Give him more practice.” Sometimes I tell students that’s all they’re doing, practicing.
What is understanding a poem anyway? Maybe you do understand it and don’t know it yet.
We understand so many things we can’t explain. We know how a piece of music makes us feel and can express how a photograph in a newspaper or a painting in a gallery affects us. T. S. Eliot said that most people apprehend poetry before comprehending it. The music in the words, the quality of the imagery, the very rhythm and thing-ness of the thing speaks what it’s about. We can go back and locate the source of our feelings… or not. Sometimes, when you really admire a machine, you want to discover how it works and take it apart. Sometimes, when you love a game, you love the specific rules and traditions that make it. Sometimes, you appreciate a work of art so much you want to study it, crawl inside it , copy it, and somehow top it. Sometimes, art is so beautiful you want to leave it alone. Fine.
So you’re going somewhere strange. Let it be strange. Try to enjoy it.
The beauty of a story is its connection to our world, the sense that it might happen to someone we know or, at least, in the story’s context, might make sense. A poem is different. It’s more like a dream than a movie—the usual rules of logic are in abeyance—and just as you calmly accept the absurd in a dream, you should accept whatever the poem offers. Part of the fun is the craziness of it. Real life is real and sometimes boring. Leaving what’s real can make it vivid again. We see that everything we accept as true is only a version of truth and that other possibilities, out there floating in poems, enrich what we perceive in “reality.”
A poem isn’t always as complicated as you make it.
“Mr. Marshall,” a student once said to me, “I think ‘The Mending Wall’ may be about World War II.” I didn’t want to mention that the poem was published in 1914 and likely composed years earlier. I didn’t want to shoot down my student’s enthusiasm that he’d arrived at such a discovery. My students are conditioned to believe poems are difficult, and we’ve all been infected by modernists who’ve convinced us complexity is the highest aesthetic value and that, with poetry, complicated is better. Even the simplest poem must be about something more. And when my classes encounter a gentle little poem like William Carlos Williams’ “This I Just To Say” (a poem about Williams eating plums his wife was saving) they want to endow it (and, indirectly, themselves) with Great and Glorious Meaning. Sometimes the hardest lesson is that poetry says exactly what it means. And what it means may be complicated enough without our piling on.
Besides, have you ever written poetry? What if it is complicated?
Writing poetry, you feel a compulsion to achieve elevated speech. You want to define the indefinable and represent that which cannot be named. It isn’t easy, this pressure you feel that this statement, this time, must be right, must be perfect. You might revise and revise and revise until you find love for every word. You might enter the poem so fully you’re lost in rooms you’ve fashioned. And you might lose readers because, try as you might and try as they might, no one ever quite got there, just did the best they could to apprehend subtle feelings that, really, can’t be penned by language or expressed rationally.
People don’t write poetry—or write fiction, or make music or movies, or dance, or paint or do just about anything else creative—because they have answers. They do it because they have questions and obsessions they can never quite settle.
Why do we seek solutions the authors couldn’t locate themselves? Shouldn’t it be enough to know something about their questions, to understand what bothers them and what, if we can be empathetic enough, might bother us too?
If life were clear and sensible, poetry might be too. But as long as life is confusing and neither this nor that but something indefinable between, poetry needs to be too.
Maybe reading poetry requires acceptance. Maybe, in the end, that’s all it takes.