I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard statements like, “I don’t read poetry. I just don’t get it.”
It’s true – poetry can often seem inaccessible and sometimes impossible to understand. The genre’s unconventional forms, grammar, rhythms, and obscure images can leave readers confused and frustrated. I’m embarrassed to admit that, although I’m a huge advocate and lover of poetry, I too often struggle to understand it. On any given day, I’d way sooner curl up with a good piece of fiction than, say, my copy of The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens.
And yet, although poetry can appear abstract, and despite my own personal struggle to engage with certain poems and forms of poetry, I believe poetry is important for and relevant to everyone.
Poetry is important because language is important. The human species developed language as a means of making sense of an otherwise chaotic and unknowable universe. Language has enabled us to create a world in which objects exist in relationship to one another and to ourselves. We have given names to things and then created verbs, adjectives, adverbs and so on to further describe these things, what they do and how they affect us. While language has proven very useful to humans in that it mediates reality for us, it is inherently flawed. As postmodern thinkers have pointed out, language does not accurately express reality. Take the word “apple” for example. I might refer to both a honey crisp and a granny smith as “apple”, but, although similar, these two types of apples are very different. And what’s more is that no two honey crisps or granny smiths look, taste, feel and smell exactly alike. While language categorizes and sub-categorizes objects so that we can understand and talk about them, language misleads us by making us believe that two distinct objects, such as two honey crisps, share all the same properties.
In “Truth and a Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense,” Friedrich Nietzsche discusses the misleading nature of language by explaining how it mediates a false reality to human beings. He describes language as
A mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms; in short a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically heightened, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem fixed, canonical, and binding to a people (455).
As Nietzsche points out, by essentializing language, the system we created to make sense of the universe, we have duped ourselves. Language would have us believe that everything in the universe is equivalent to the words we use to articulate them. Elsewhere Nietzsche asserts that words are “only metaphors of things which in no way correspond to the original entities” (767). What he means is that words do not possess and are not equivalent to the objects to which they refer. In this way, language is dishonest and unreliable. And yet, we have put our complete trust in language to reveal the universe to us.
While language is a faulty, dishonest system, I’d like to argue that poetry has the power to redeem language, to rescue it from its misuses and abuses, or at least to complicate this relationship. Unlike everyday uses of language, poetry doesn’t lay claim to empirical truth. Like language, poetry uses metaphor; but unlike everyday language, poetry employs metaphor intentionally and self-consciously. For instance, in “Free Union,” Surrealist poet André Breton compares his wife’s hair to “a brush fire,” her thoughts to “summer lightning” and her waist to “an otter caught in the teeth of a tiger.” While, as discussed, we implicitly trust in the metaphors of everyday language, not for a moment do we believe that Breton’s wife actually has fire for hair, lightening in her brain and an otter in a tiger’s mouth in place of her waist. Rather than literally, we read the poem literarily. We understand that Breton is describing his wife using metaphor, a literary device common to poetry. That said, while we recognize Breton’s use of metaphor, we still conceptualize the images the metaphors create. As a Surrealist, Breton recognized the power of metaphor to have us picture images foreign to everyday experience, and he intentionally broke with conventional uses of language to do just that. By having us imagine something new, or what he would call surreal, Breton transports his readership beyond the confines of the reality set up by traditional uses of language to a reality where the limits and inherent lies of language do not exist. For him and other modern poets, poetry’s most profound function is its ability to establish a more meaningful reality and human experience.
By pointing to a reality beyond the one we know through language, poetry does not attempt to make realistic truth claims about the universe. In this sense, poetry is more honest than common of language. According to contemporary thinker Terry Eagleton,
Poetry is a kind of phenomenology of language – one in which the relation between word and meaning (or signifier and signified) is tighter than it is in everyday speech. There are several different ways of saying ‘Take a seat’, but only one way of saying ‘The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass.’ Poetry is language in which the signified or meaning is the whole process of signification itself (How to Read a Poem 21).
Whereas there is typically a disconnect between words and the objects they denote, as Eagleton explains, in poetry, the signifier (the word) and the signified (the concept or image the word brings to mind) are more closely linked. For this reason, Eagleton calls poetry “a supremely refined product of human consciousness” (22). T. S. Eliot discusses poetry’s refined use of language in The Four Quartets:
And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident or ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise by not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph.
Like Eagleton, Eliot describes poetry as “an end and a beginning,” a place where words and concepts unite. For Eliot, poetry is a framework in which words are carefully chosen and arranged in a precise and thoughtful way. And this precision, this self-conscious use of language, is what gives poetry its power to redefine experience or reality. There’s a lot of hope in poetry. I see reading (and writing) poetry as a way of reconstituting meaning in an otherwise seemingly meaningless world.
You don’t need to be a genius to read poetry or take advantage of the hope it has to offer. Sometimes it’s hard not to want to make immediate sense of a poem. As someone who has studied poetry ad nauseam, when reading a poem it’s difficult for me not consider how its rhythm, syntax, sound devices, meter, diction, form, imagery, etc. contribute to its meaning. But you don’t have to apply rational methods of poetry analysis to excavate a poem’s meaning. If that were true, poetry would be reserved for those trained in the art of decoding literary devices. While an English degree can prepare you to conduct in-depth literary analysis, in my experience, this type of analysis can strip poetry of all its magic and mystery. I think it’s possible and important to interact with poetry on a non-rational level. What I mean is, rather than wrack your brain for a rational explanation for a poem, I think it’s possible to consult the right side of your brain, the holistic, creative, intuitive side, for a poem’s meaning. Simply allowing your mind to engage with a poem’s sounds and conceptualize its images is, in my opinion, the most essential and significant way to read a poem.
In my last blog post, I briefly discussed sound poetry and my inability to engage with it on a rational level. While I’m frustrated by my inability to understand sound poems, I don’t think sound poems are, first and foremost, to be understood logically. Just because you don’t understand the lyrics to a song doesn’t mean you can’t dance to it, right? I think a sound poem or any poem’s most profound function is its ability to disorient its audience or readership by transforming words into sounds or images divorced from their conventional meanings and uses. So don’t let poetry discourage you. Read playfully, without an agenda. Trust in poetry’s ability to act on your mind in ways you may not consciously perceive. By dispelling our linguistic reality and the humdrum of everyday existence, poetry ignites our higher levels of consciousness, freeing our minds to imagine and engage with a more meaningful, more profound vision of reality and human experience.
Eagleton, Terry. How to Read a Poem. Malden: Blackwell, 2007. Print.
Eliot, T. S. "The Four Quartets." The Collected Poems 1909-1962. San Diego: Hartcourt, 1963. 175-209. Print.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. "Truth and a Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense." The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed. David H. Hitchter. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2007. 452-459. Print.