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When I used to teach literature classes, many students were suspicious of poetry. They said they could not understand it. As far as they knew, poems were puzzles to be solved by brute brain force. This rational detective work seemed to them arcane, or arbitrary. It even contradicted their own experiences when they’d stumbled over a poem they thought they understood. They concluded poetry was merely confusing and ultimately meaningless to everyday people. These students were misled by a vast right-left-and-center-wing conspiracy that pretends poems are rational exercises, like algebra problems, whose solutions are political, social, philosophical or personal “messages.” In some wings of the conspiracy, you can even pretend the poems mean whatever you want them to, which is the ultimate nonsense. Wallace Stevens, a 20th century American poet, wrote: “One reads poetry with one’s nerves.” By this he meant the meaning of poetry is not solved rationally; it is felt. Words do trigger thoughts, which is why the professors get away with forcing you to read a poem as if it is a rebus. But a poem’s thought is often the least of its meanings. A poem speaks to your emotions, which are often hard to get into rational focus. It speaks to the parts of you that get meaning from music and beautiful scenery. It speaks to parts of yourself you don’t even know exist until they’re stirred up by sounds, rhythms, images. Stevens also wrote: “Poetry must resist the intelligence almost successfully.” If you can’t understand the rational meaning of a poem, don’t worry. You should listen with other parts of yourself besides your head. “To read a poem should be an experience, like experiencing an act.”
Dana Wilde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.