Reading Poems

Huck Gutman
Professor of English
The University of Vermont

Section  One

The Power of Poems –
and The Difficulties in Poems

i.       A Poem Can Save Your Life
ii.      The Things We Do Not Say to One Another
iii.     What Comes Between the Poem and the Reader
iv.      The Eleven Guidelines for Reading Poems

i. A Poem Can Save Your Life

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.
--William Carlos Williams, “Asphodel”

          A while back, a close friend of mine, a distinguished painter, was diagnosed with cancer.  He entered into a round of tests, doctor’s appointments, more tests.  The diagnosis was confirmed and treatment was prescribed: he would undergo a ten-hour surgery, followed by months of chemotherapy and radiation.  Although he had always been forthright, cheeerful and brave, the diagnosis ruptured his everyday sense of things. A person effervescent by nature and inclination, he had, at times, to work to keep his spirits up.  He even stopped painting;

         Facing the prospect of the long and dangerous surgery, recognizing that there was always a possibility that  things might not work out and that he might die,  In this situation, he decided he would memorize some poems.  I didn’t ask him why, since the decision in some deep way made sense to me.  Perhaps the common everyday expression for this activity – learning a poem by heart – had enough logic to satisfy me, since the phrase so cogently asserts the profound relation between our emotional lives and the poem.

         Here is the first poem he decided to memorize, one by W. H. Auden.  It gave him comfort and pride to recite it.

Musée des Beaux Arts
 About suffering they were never wrong,
 The Old Masters: how well they understood
 Its human position; how it takes place
 While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
 How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
 For the miraculous birth, there always must be
 Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
 On a pond at the edge of the wood:
 They never forgot
 That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
 Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
 Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
 Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

 In Breughel's ICARUS, for instance: how everything turns away
 Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
 Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
 But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
 As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
 Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
 Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
 Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

[If you want to hear W. H. Auden read this poem, click here.]

        In life we accept many things without thinking which, were we to focus our attention on them, would strike us as astonishing.  So it is with this poem and my friend’s pride in memorizing it.  In the simplest terms, what the poem tells us is that no one notices suffering: “it takes place/ While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along,” while “the dogs go on with their doggy life.”  Even when something amazing happens, as occurs in Pieter Brueghel’s painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” (below) where long before the age of airplanes a young man, trying out the set of wings his father made for him, ventures too close to the sun so that the wax holding feathers to his arms begins to melt, and he falls into the sea –  no one notices.  The poem’s final lines, accurate in their description of the painting, are hauntingly beautiful: “and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen/  Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,/ Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.”

  Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
The legs of Icarus are visible, barely, between the ship and the white-jacketed fisherman

         Here is the question which rather naturally came into my mind as I considered my friend's astonishing choice, to memorize this particular poem:

         How could he take such pleasure in words which describe the very worst that could befall him as he faced cancer: That he would go on with his struggle, and no one would notice or care?   That he might even be swallowed up and disappear, without any effect on the world?

        We can only call this strange transformation of the painful and the disquieting into the beautiful, verbal alchemy.  Suffering is changed into something else, something in its own way joyous.

         Such can be the power of words rhythmically organized, made into a poem.

         I would not be telling the truth if I said I fully understand the process.  The workings of poem depend on something which is not scientifically valid nor psycologically measurable, ‘the imagination.’ Writing poems, and reading poems for that matter, depends on a principle which the philosopher Pascal recognized over three centuries ago, when he said “The heart has reasons about which the mind knows nothing.”

         Let me recount a second story.  It is not actually mine, but Anton Chekhov’s.  In 1898 he published a wonderful tale called “Gooseberries.”  [ Click here for a web-based text of the story "Gooseberries" if you want to read the whole story after you have finished reading this essay. ]

       As the story commences, two middle-aged men are walking in the loveliness of the countryside when it begins to rain.  Soaked, they seek out the farm of a young friend, Alehin.  They find him in his barn, hard at work, dirty.  Together the men bathe, soaping off the grime in a nearby river, although Alehin is so taken with the joy of swimming and floating that his friends have to persuade him to leave the water and dry off.  Shortly thereafter, dressed in clean clothes, the veterinarian Ivan Ivanovitch tells them a story.

   Anton Chekhov

        Ivan, it appears, has a brother who throughout a lifetime as a minor civil servant has dreamed of owning a farm.   The core of this dream is the brother’s desire that one day gooseberry bushes will ripen with fruit on his own property.  Decades of bureaucratic boredom, a developing avarice, and a loveless but advantageous marriage enable him, finally, to buy country property.  As Ivan discovers when he visits his brother, though, this land is not the farm of his brother’s dreams.  The property is bordered by factories, the nearby river is polluted, the vegetation is a messy jumble and not an ordered and productive garden, and everything connected to the homestead – his brother’s dog, his maid, his brother himself – looks vaguely like a pig.  To top it all off, the farm his brother has purchased  does not have a gooseberry patch.

        Yet Ivan’s brother is content; more than content, he is happy.  For he has planted gooseberries, and at the time of Ivan’s visit the first small harvest appears on a plate.  Though the berries are small, unripe, sour, his brother revels in eating each one.

         Ivan tells the story because the visit provided him with epiphany.  “I want to tell you about the change that took place in me during the brief hours I spent at his country place,” he tells his companions.

        I saw a happy man whose cherished dream was so obviously fulfilled, who had attained his object in life, who had gained what he wanted, who was satisfied with his fate and himself.
        The revelation comes as Ivan thinks about the potential personal enrichment his brother sacrificed to gain his ‘farm,’ about the sententious bore his brother has become, about the weird contentment his brother feels as eats each sour gooseberry.   Ivan suddenly realizes contentment in life is like a set of blinders, shutting out most of what might otherwise be seen.  Of what needs to be seen:
        I reflected how many satisfied, happy people there really are! 'What a suffocating force it is! You look at life: the insolence and idleness of the strong, the ignorance and brutishness of the weak, incredible poverty all about us, overcrowding, degeneration, drunkenness, hypocrisy, lying. . . . Yet all is calm and stillness in the houses and in the streets; of the fifty thousand living in a town, there is not one who would cry out, who would give vent to his indignation aloud. We see the people going to market for provision. . . .but we do not see and we do not hear those who suffer, and what is terrible in life goes on somewhere behind the scenes. . . .  Everything is quiet and peaceful, and nothing protests but mute statistics.
        Ivan’s recognition is not unlike what Auden realizes about Brueghel and the Old Masters, although the emotional tenor of their two insights is vastly different.  Auden sees and, in recognition of the tragic dimension to life, accepts.  The fictional Ivan cries out in horror: there is grave injustice everywhere, and we are blind to it!  He feels for the hundreds, the thousands, of Icaruses who live brutish lives, who suffer daily indignity, without ever being seen.

         In his anger at this mute acceptance of injustice, Ivan turns ironic:

        And this order of things is evidently necessary; evidently the happy man only feels at ease because the unhappy bear their burdens in silence, and without that silence happiness would be impossible. It's a case of general hypnotism.
He then utters what, it seems to me, is one of the most eloquent statements in all of literature: a plea that we be reminded each day, as if with a hammer knocking on the walls of our contentedness, of the existence of suffering and injustice in human life.
      There ought to be behind the door of every happy, contented man some one standing with a hammer continually reminding him with a tap that there are unhappy people; that however happy he may be, life will show him her laws sooner or later, trouble will come for him -- disease, poverty, losses, and no one will see or hear, just as now he neither sees nor hears others. But there is no man with a hammer . . .
        The poem can be the ‘man with a hammer,’  reminding us that beneath, behind, happiness is a world of suffering and injustice.  A world which is often rarely mentioned, which often does not work its way into either consciousness or words.

        The poem can be the ‘man with a hammer,’  reminding us that  there is much which our vision looks at but does not see, that our consciousness takes in but does not register.  Not just in the arena of injustice, but in the taste of daily life, whether that taste be of passionate love or of plums.

        The poem can be the ‘man with a hammer,’  reminding us that there exist others besides outselves, that each person’s consciousness and experience represents an alternative approach to reality to our own, an alternative way of living and seeing in the world.  These alternatives can serve as a possible correction to, or enlargement of, our own vision of things.

         The radical difference between each human being and every other is revealed at the end of Chekhov's story, “Gooseberries.”   For Ivan does not convince his listeners.  The young farmer Alehin listens to Ivan’s story and misses, entirely, the moral fervor with which his friend has seen the world.  Alehin is simply happy to have had a conversation which goes beyond the mundane regularity of his everyday existence, and he is doubly happy to have heard a story.  Despite the fact that his friend has recently held his hands and implored him to “Do good!” Alehin listens to Ivan's story as if it has “no direct bearing on his life.”  Here, at the narrative’s conclusion, it does what poems so often do: it presents us with conflicting views, rather than resolving the muddle of existence into a nice, neat package.

        He did not go into the question whether what Ivan Ivanovitch had just said was right and true. His visitors did not talk of groats, nor of hay, nor of tar, but of something that had no direct bearing on his life, and he was glad and wanted them to go on.
    Of the poems we come to love, we too might say, we are glad of them and want them to go on.

ii. The Things We Do Not Say to One Another

Here is the time for the sayable, here is its homeland.
Speak and bear witness.
        -- Rainier Maria Rilke, "Duino Elegy, IX"

  Rainier Maria Rilke

         This essay is about poems and poetry.  It begins with a statement which might be contested, but which I think is nevertheless true:

        There are things we do not say to one another.  Or only half say.  Or say badly.  Language in everyday life does not work as fluently or transparently as we would like it to work.  We live in a world of silences, missed communications, awkwardness, infelicities of statement.

        Let us look at a brief poem by Emily Dickinson.  Poems do not come much shorter than this one, for it has only sixteen words, more than half of them of four letters or less.  It seems to present few difficulties, since it contains no fancy turns of phrase, no allusions to other poems, and hardly any figures of speech.

Emily Dickinson

We introduce ourselves
To Planets and to Flowers
But with ourselves
Have etiquettes
And awes
      [Poem #1214, written around 1872]
        What could be simpler than the first two lines?  We introduce ourselves to the world, both to the large and distant (planets) and to the small and domestic (flowers).  The dreaded qualifier – most of us can frequently  hear a “but” coming from a mile away, though I am not sure that this is the case as we read those first two brief lines – appears: “but with ourselves we have etiquettes, embarrassments, and awes.”  So what?  Have we really learned anything from this “but” statement?  (I think the answer is yes, but let’s wait a moment.  The poem is so strangely simple that it is worth dwelling on and in that strangeness for a little while.)

        Another question arises: Why are these six lines a poem?  Hasn’t Emily Dickinson simply made a statement: a slightly strange one, but a statement nevertheless?

        The first two lines are shaped by a minor symbolism, dependent on metaphor: we don’t actually introduce ourselves to planets and flowers.  (Emily Dickinson was a strange and brilliant woman, who lived a strange and wonderful life: And so I have to confess that is not beyond probability that she might actually have said to a flower, “Hello, I’m Emily,” and might possibly have introduced herself on a clear night to Venus, the so-called evening star.)  I’ve interpreted those two nouns earlier, suggesting that Dickinson makes use of metaphor, which emphasizes similarities, so that the distant planets represent distance, and the familiar flowers represent familiarity.  But a small dose of metaphor doesn’t make a poem.  Or does it?

        The last three lines of the poem are slightly unusual, in that the words are perhaps more abstract and depersonalized than we are used to: the embarrassment and awe are not defined, but generic.  Additionally, those two words sit uneasily in a series which also includes “etiquettes.”  The formality of “etiquette” is an odd partner for the strongly emotional “embarrassment,” with its overtones of being made to feel small owing to personal insufficiency,  and “awe,” with its overtones of  being made to feel small in the presence of grandeur.

        If we look very carefully, we notice that though the lines are so brief we don't look for it, the lines do rhyme.  Odd rhymes, it is true.  These are not full rhymes, which occur when the last stressed vowel and all sounds following it are repeated, as in moon/June, all/small/tall/fall.  Etiquettes/embarrassments form a slant rhyme, meaning that there are similarities in the sounds (the final ts) but no exact repetitions; the same goes for flowers/awes: try pronouncing the two lines out loud!  The other two lines are yoked together by what is called an identical rhyme, in which the words are in some sense over-rhymed: not just the final sounds but the words themselves are repeated in ‘ourselves/ourselves.’  So the poem has a rhyme scheme.  Using a new letter of the alphabet for each new rhyme, this poem goes abaccb.

        Let’s read the poem again.  Poetry requires attentiveness, and as the French critic Roland Barthes said in a wonderful observation, “Those who refuse to reread are doomed to read the same text everywhere.”  In other words, only if we pay attention to words do we see what they are actually doing; without attentiveness, we slide over them so quickly and easily that the words are all about destination and not about the journey.  If I may be so bold, that sort of destination almost always turns out to be exactly where we started.

We introduce ourselves
To Planets and to Flowers
But with ourselves
Have etiquettes
And awes
        Just as a see-saw has a balance point, so does this poem.  And it is not the qualifier “but” as one might think in reading the poem quickly.  The balance point, the crucial moment when the words become a poem, is that seemingly innocuous second “ourselves.”  We think we know what the word refers to; after all, we have seen it already just two lines previous, when what it meant was closely linked to the “We” with which the poem commences.  We folks, poet and reader both, can say hello to planets and flowers.  “Ourselves” refers to the poet and the reader and all other human beings.

         “But with ourselves” is more complicated.  Is Emily Dickinson saying that the etiquettes, embarrassments and awes arise when we talk with other human beings (“ourselves” meaning much what it did in the first line)?  Or might she mean, 'with my own self I have etiquettes, and likewise you do with your own self'?  Is this poem, then, about how we respond to others – or is it about how we respond to our very own self?  The word “ourselves” can mean either one.  In language we call this kind of uncertainty ambiguity.

        In daily life, in newspaper prose, ambiguity is usually considered a weakness, and we rephrase things to make sure the meaning is clear and unitary.  But in a poem, ambiguity can be a powerful tool.  Just consider our example.  The ambiguity of “ourselves” means that the subject of the poem has just expanded, so that it might be a poem about how we relate to others, or it might be a poem about how we relate to ourselves – or it might be about both.  I myself  prefer the last alternative, as it shows how that one ambiguous term, “ourselves,” has suddenly enriched the meaning of the sixteen words two-fold.  Or maybe more than two-fold.  For perhaps the two meanings intersect: maybe Dickinson is suggesting that each of us relates to our own being as if that being were an alien thing, an other, a stranger; or possibly she may be suggesting that each time we deal with another human being our own self-discomforts, our own self-embarrassments,  intervene.

         These five lines, then, are language that means more than everyday speech.  That is, I think, a fine definition of poetry, though certainly not the only possible definition:  Poetry is language that means more than everyday speech, language enriched by one means or another to say more than we ordinarily say.

         Sixteen words to Dickinson’s poem, and we are not done with it yet.  Because it is time to put the parts together and see what Dickinson is telling us.  What she is saying is – this is why I suggested a while back that we inhabit the strangeness of the poem before jumping too quickly into a meaning – that we are uncomfortable with other people, so that we do not deal as naturally with them as we do with natural objects like planets and flowers.  With other people, we have “etiquettes:” we follow elaborate rules about what is proper to say and do, rules which make natural interactions difficult.  With other people, we have “embarrassments:” we feel self-conscious, ill at ease, uncertain about whether we are doing the right thing.  This too makes natural interactions difficult.  Finally, with other people we have “awes:” we sense a majesty to their presence, which makes us feel a combination of reverence, wonder, and even dread.

         Emily Dickinson is remarkably perceptive.  We human beings do find that rules, self-consciousness, and dread inflect our relations with other people.  But her perceptiveness leaps into a new dimension when we realize, remembering the ambiguity of “ourselves,” that Dickinson is also suggesting that rules, self-consciousness and dread are what results when each us tries to come to terms with who we ourselves are.  With my own self I have an elaborate set of rules (I will do this.  I can’t do that.  I didn’t do it that way yesterday).  I am often self-conscious about my own insufficiencies and awkwardness.  I am at times astonished at the powers that are within me, powers that lead to immense admiration for my capacities, but that also scare me with their indomitable needs and wants.

         In the sixteen words she wrote for us, Emily Dickinson did nothing less than legitimize the need for the poem in human life.  We have difficulty talking to (introducing ourselves to) other human beings, and so we have difficulty comfortably inhabiting  (introducing our selves to) our own consciousness.  She has explained some of the mechanisms involved in the statement I made earlier, which I will now repeat:

        There are things we do not say to one another.  Or only half say.  Or say badly.  Language in everyday life does not work as fluently or transparently as we would like it to work.  We live in a world of silences, missed communications, awkwardness, infelicities of statement.

        Fifty years after Emily Dickinson wrote “ We introduce ourselves” another American poet, T. S. Eliot, wrote the following lines.  They appear near the conclusion of his long and difficult poem, The Waste Land:

. . . I have heard the key
Turn in the door once and turn once only
We think of the key, each confirms a prison
Thomas Stearns Eliot

    These lines appear as part of Eliot’s attempt to justify the need for sympathy in human life.  The words tell us that, as Dickinson recognized, we are each doubly imprisoned.  We are imprisoned inside the confines of our own body and consciousness, and hence away from other people.  We are also imprisoned by our routines, our self-consciousness, our fear, imprisoned by a myriad of emotions from from embracing who and what we are.

        Sometimes we can acknowledge how difficult it is to speak intimately to other people about what is important to us.  But acknowledging that loneliness, our disconnection from others, is far easier than bridging the gap between others and ourselves.  We do find it difficult “to introduce ourselves” to the people with whom we share the globe.  Even more difficult, then, is it for each of us to speak deeply to, and with, our own inner self.  We each have, internally, in Dickinson ‘s words, “etiquettes, embarrassments and awes.”

        Acknowledging this inability to come to terms with our own self is very difficult. We pretend that we know what is good for us and that we are on excellent terms with our own inner selves, even  as we all too often drown in unfulfilled desires and unacknowledged emotions,

        The “key,” to use Eliot’s term, is often the poem.  Eliot’s great contemporary William Carlos Williams –  though I should mention that Eliot completely  ignored Williams’ poetry and in return Williams despised Eliot’s –  wrote of the importance of poems in lines made even more eloquent and compelling by their seeming simplicity.  Here is his wonderful defense of poetry in his long love poem, “Asphodel, that Greeny Flower”.

                                Look at
                What passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
        despised poems.
                        It is difficult
to get the news from poems
        yet men die miserably every day
                        for lack
of what is found there.

  William Carlos Williams

        Williams claims here that it is sometimes only in the poem that a person can speak forthrightly, deeply, to another; similarly, it is sometimes only in the poem that the poet can speak forthrightly and deeply to her or his self.  What happens when the poet makes the poem also happens when the reader reads the poem.  The poet makes a voice, shapes a voice, that says what the poet would not ordinarily say in daily life.  The reader goes on a parallel journey, listening to the voice of another human being speaking to her; at the same time as the voice is that of another, there is also a sense in which it is one's own inner voice, too, so that the reader can identify with the poet’s colloquy with the his/her inner self.

         If I had to pick my favorite passage of poetry, it might be these three lines from Walt Whitman.  There may be better-written lines, though I love the quick leap from humor and everyday concerns to ultimate seriousness and great intimacy.  But there are few passages which speak so cogently about important things:

I do not say these things for a dollar or to fill up the time while I wait for a boat,
(It is you talking just as much as myself, I act as the tongue of you,
Tied in your mouth, in mine it begins to be loosen’d.)
               (“Song of Myself, ” 47)
        The poem is the refuge of saying, the last best place where one human being can talk to another.  The poem is also, at times, the sole remaining place where the self can talk with itself about the things which matter.

iii. What comes between the poem and the reader?

This hour I tell things in confidence,
I might not tell everybody, but I will tell you.
        -- Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” 20
Walt Whitman

         If poems are necessary to a world in which saying things to one another, and even communing with our own selves, is so often difficult, how is it that a great gap exists between readers and poetry?  After all, reading poems is not exactly an everyday activity for most people.  In fact, many people never read a poem once they get out of high school.

         It is worth reminding ourselves that this has not always been the case in America.  In the nineteenth century, a usual American activity was to sit around the fireside in the evening and read poems aloud.  It is true that there was no television at the time, nor movie theaters, nor world wide web, to provide diversion.  Nevertheless, poems were a source of pleasure, of self-education, of connection to other people or to the world beyond one’s own community.   Reading them was a social act as well as an individual one, and perhaps even more social than individual. Writing poems to share with friends and relations was, like reading poems by the fireside, another way in which poetry had a place in everyday life.

         How did things change?  Why are most Americans no longer comfortable with poetry, and why do most people today think that a poem has nothing to tell them and that they can do well without poems?

         There are, I believe, three culprits: poets, teachers, and we ourselves.  Of these, the least important is the third: the world surrounding the poem has betrayed us more than we have betrayed the poem.

         Early in the twentieth century, poetry in English headed into directions hostile to the reading of poetry.  Led by the example of the very great but very-wrong-minded poet T. S. Eliot, who served as a kind of Pied Piper of Hamline leading poets out of the human city and into the dark forests of difficulty, poets became entranced with making difficult poems.  ( Of course, it is a fact sometimes unacknowledged by those who do not teach poetry that really fine poems always have something difficult about them.  But that is a fact which I think is better held in the back of one’s mind, a kind of awareness that writing and reading poems takes skills just as cooking a fine meal or playing  baseball takes skills, and that a well-made poem has complexities just as a game of baseball has strategies and a good meal balances tastes, ingredients, courses.)

         T. S. Eliot brought difficulty into the foreground.  And a host of other writers in what we call the modernist period went along, thinking, “Oh, my, yes, the poem is difficult and so I will make difficult poems.”  Bingo!  There went the ball game.  Readers decided that poems were not for the fireside or the easy chair at night, that they belonged where other difficult-to-read things belonged: in university classes, right after formulas in theoretical physics and just before declensions of Latin nouns.  (There were a good number of poets who tried to resist this new move to foregrounding difficulty, chief among them Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams, but they were minority voices.  Swimming against the stream.)

         If poets failed the reader, so did teachers.  Being a teacher in America is hard work.  Teachers are underpaid, under-appreciated, and not responsible for most of the failings of a society which they did not make but whose children they are supposed to teach.  But teachers, and especially high school teachers, have for generations of students failed the poem.

         Somehow, for almost all Americans, high school throws a monkey wrench into our developing relationship with poetry.  As children we take pleasure in  verse: in its repetition of sounds, in the way it turns language into music, in the ease with which we can remember its phrases.  Indeed, a large number of the picture books which please young children best are written in verse.  High school teachers are well-intentioned: They want their students to know something about the craft of a poem, they want their students to see that poems mean something.  Yet what usually occurs when teachers push these concerns on their high school students is that young people decide poems are unpleasant crossword puzzles. What crossword puzzle wouldn’t be unpleasant if it were assigned as homework and graded, if each time we struggled with a clue we were made to feel incompetent, slow, or even stupid?

        In this pedagogical fiasco T. S. Eliot again makes an appearance as evil genius:  A whole new way of teaching poems came into being, called the New Criticism.  It stressed the poem as a well-made object, and centered on analysis of poetic technique.  New Criticism’s guiding spirit was T. S. Eliot.  I personally love much of what New Criticism has taught me, but it begins in the wrong place.  You don’t teach a young child to love baseball by giving the child a book of baseball’s rules, although at a certain stage of playing or watching the game a knowledge of the rules makes it more complex and more satisfying.  Nor do you shape a fine cook by teaching a child to measure flour by the gram or insisting on correct procedures for chopping onions.  Eating well, loving to be in the midst of the happy busy-ness of the kitchen, sharing in small ways the joy of cooking, stirring things together in a bowl: these are the roots which sustain fine chefs as they develop their craft, even though they have to eventually buckle down to measuring floor on a scale or mincing onions or butterflying a leg of lamb. [An aside: I love to read cookbooks.  Perhaps the best one I have ever read is When French Women Cook by Madeleine Kamman -- and it is about how she hung out in the kitchen of her mother and aunts, and learned to love their food, their kitchens, their way of bustling around their kitchens.]

        I think that high school teaches most of us to hate poems, largely because it teaches us to hate ourselves for our insufficiencies as readers when we read poems and struggle to ‘interpret’ them and recognize their ‘greatness.’  Thus it comes as no surprise that American do not turn to poems for connection, for excitement, for solace.  (Well, we do – but the poems we turn to are accompanied by guitars and drums and pianos, and they pass as rock music, or country music, or ‘easy listening’, or rap.   We treasure those words, but don’t feel the need to interpret them – though we sometimes do – because they are ‘only' songs.)

        Still, some responsibility for the gap between the poem and the reader must rest on ordinary people, people like oursleves.  We value work, money, shopping, light entertainment, socializing, and a number of other things so highly that there is often not enough time to listen carefully to other human beings and what they have to say.  Unhappily, there there are often too many competing demands on our time for us to pay adequate attention to the nourishment of our own inner selves.  To paraphrase a line by the poet William Carlos Williams, we fail the poem.  We do not give it the time and attention it needs, and so it cannot speak to us of important things.

        Poems do ask us for a bit of time and attention, but you'll be surprised to learn that the time commitment need not be long, though it must often be intense.  Most of the time we avoid poems, usually because we think reading them will only make us feel small and incompetent.  We've been taught that it is hard to find the meanings of poems, and we've learned from sometimes bitter experience that if we find the meaning, someone is sure to tell us it is the wrong meaning.


         Poems are not as hard as they are made out to be.

         That, and the importance a poem can play in our lives, is the whole message of these words you are reading.

         I don’t mean to ignore the fact that a poem can be difficult.  In truth, I believe, every poem is difficult, but I also believe that difficulty should largely remain in the background.  There is more to poems than their difficulty, and that ‘more’ is what should attract us to poems, should encourage us to read poems and take them into our lives.   Having read poems, listened to the voices in them speaking to us, enjoyed the music of their words -- having done these things, then, if we are ready, we can take on the difficulty, too.  But only when we are ready.

         Let’s try an experiment.  After all, I offered a strange statement a short ways back when I said I believe every poem is difficult.  Some readers might want to know why poems are difficult, while others might be bored by this question.  Feeling as I do that difficulty should be addressed only when a reader is ready for it, let’s try to answer the question of why, aside from the bad example of T. S. Eliot and the failings of high school teachers,  poems are difficult.   But let’s address the question in a footnote – so that those who are not ready to take up the question can postpone it, in the same way that I have just advocated postponing the difficulties which can arise when reading a poem.  Here then is the footnote(1); please skip it if you feel like doing so.  You can come back to it another day.  Or you can decide never to come back to it.
Footnote (can be skipped!)
(1)   Poems deal, almost by definition, with what is hard to say, or say well.  [Even Alexander Pope in the 18th century recognized this when he wrote, "True Wit is Nature to advantage dressed, / What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed."] It follows that what poems say is sometimes strange, and not a part of what is familiar to us, at least in language.  In the depths of our hearts and minds, of course, what we feel and think finds its echoes in the poem.  It is just that we are not used to seeing our deepest concerns put forth in language.

    Poems say a lot with a few words.  In the compression process a lot of explanatory material – the “I mean” of everyday conversation – gets left out.  Sometimes even connections (like the “sometimes even” of this sentence) get dropped.  So readers have to bring more to the poem than they have to bring to other things – newspapers, junk mail, billboards, telephone conversations, television and radio –  which use language.  Although if you read a transcript of one of your phone calls, you might be surprised by how much is left out, rendered in oral shorthand; and if you tried to figure out the 'logic' of a television ad you might find it to be compressed, economical with words, in the same way as a poem is.

    Poems are crafted, and like any crafted thing – a well-designed kitchen, a well-played game of chess, artfully-applied makeup – they pay heed to certain rules and guidelines, and build on pre-existent principles.  If it weren’t so difficult to get kitchens ‘right’ people wouldn’t spend tens of thousands of dollars remodelling them; if making one’s face beautiful were as simple as washing one’s face in the morning, Revlon and Estee Lauder would go bankrupt.  Craft is pleasant to encounter, but understanding its principles, how it shapes 'beauty,' is a difficult process.

    As with makeup, a poem is connected to esthetics.  Every poem is an esthetic object: in an important sense, the delivery system by which it communicates a meaning is part of the meaning.  Just as an arrangement of flowers is more than the flowers, just as the wrapping of a gift is part of the meaning --“This is a gift,” “This shows I care enough about you to give you something,” “This is something special, and not an everyday transaction” – so in every poem the shape and texture of the words is part of what the poem is telling the reader.

    Finally, it should be mentioned that what distinguishes poetic language from everyday language is its difficulty.  This is one of the strangest and most important features of every poem, but instead of exploring poetic language now, we will save it for a second web page, when we can concentrate on this feature of poems by itself.  Now, after all, we are trying to engage the poem directly, and not be overawed by the fact that poems often confront readers with difficulty.

       Here's a rule I want you to follow.  It is a really good rule.  It makes reading poems more pleasurable, more fun.  It lets poems speak to you, and kisses off that teacher's voice in your head -- you know the one -- saying, "Yes, but what is the meaning of this poem?"

       Don’t ever feel that you have to come up with the ‘meaning’ of a poem.  Reading is not, after all, an extension of high school classes.  Walt Whitman, whom I find a wonderful guide, asks sarcastically in section two of his “Song of Myself:”

Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems. . .
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the
    dead, nor  feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them for your self.

Whitman, frontispiece to Leaves of Grass (1855)

        Those who think they know how to “get at the meaning of poems” don’t have the real stuff, he says: the real stuff is to experience in your own fashion, listening, filtering, shaping.

    Poems do have meanings, but what they mean is best approached by listening to them as if another person is talking to us.  As Whitman says elsewhere in “Song of Myself,” “This hour I tell things in confidence,/I might not tell everybody, but I will tell you.”

        So, here they are: the eleven guidelines for reading poems, none of which – surprise! –  has to do with finding the meaning of a poem

                   – OR IS IT ONLY ONE?
  1. Someone is speaking to us about something which seriously concerns her/him.

  2. There is almost always an emotional tenor to a poem.

  3. The poem always – just like a person -- has a voice, a recognizable and unique voice.

  4. The lyric poem issues from a self.

  5. That self wants to make contact.

  6. We are often so uncomfortable with ourselves that saying something important often requires us to be indirect.

  7. It is always better to read several poems by a poet, rather than just one; always better to start with short poems rather than long ones.

  8. Embrace strangeness.  To do this, you will have to trust your imagination.

  9. Try strangeness on for size: use yourself as a touchstone.   To do this, you will have to trust your imagination.

  10.  The poem is an esthetic object: form and ‘beauty’ are always part of what is going on in the poem.

  11.   Every rule for reading poems, including numbers 1-10, can be discarded in favor of this one rule:

       LISTEN to the poem.

For an elucidation of these rules, and examples of how each one works in practice, go to the web page allied with this:

You Can Read a Poem: The Guidelines Elaborated
Click here