Understanding Poetry Is More Straightforward Than You Think – New York Times

Misleading presuppositions about the nature of poetry are not just a problem for young readers. Many young poets, however, confuse being deliberately obscure with creating a deeper mystery. Good poets do not deliberately complicate something just to make it harder for a reader to understand. Unfortunately, young readers, and young poets too, are taught to think that this is exactly what poets do. This has, in turn, created certain habits in the writing of contemporary poetry. Bad information about poetry in, bad poetry out, a kind of poetic obscurity feedback loop. It often takes poets a long time to unlearn this. Some never do. They continue to write in this way, deliberately obscure and esoteric, because it is a shortcut to being mysterious. The so-called effect of their poems relies on hidden meaning, keeping something away from the reader.

I don’t know what writers of stories, novels and essays eventually discover for themselves, but I can say that sooner or later poets figure out that there are no new ideas, only the same old ones — and that nobody who loves poetry reads it to be impressed, but to experience and feel and understand in ways only poetry can conjure.

I’m sympathetic to young poets who feel a strong impulse to disguise what they’re saying. Early in my life as a poet, I, too, had trouble being direct. I felt self-conscious, as if I needed to demonstrate my talent with the art in every line. It took me a long time to get over this feeling, and it was only when I did that I started to write poetry that was any good.

I see this tendency quite a lot in the work of my students. Often, unconsciously, they’ll do something at the beginning of their poems that demonstrates, according to whatever terms they have, that they’re poets. It’s as if they’re presenting their poetic qualifications for inspection. Some of them, for instance, will do something really weird and disruptive with syntax. Others will throw in a bunch of images and metaphors, right away, before we even know what the poem is about. There is often recalcitrance about giving basic information — what is going on, where we are, who is speaking and so forth — as if to do so would be to ruin whatever is poetic about the poem. But that sort of superficial introduction of confusion is not how great poetry is made, nor how we’re brought closer to what is most difficult to say.

One of the great pleasures of reading poetry is to feel words mean what they usually do in everyday life, and also start to move into a more charged, activated realm. In poetry our familiar language can start to feel resonant with significance, more alive, even noble. The words we use in our everyday lives carry along with them deep reservoirs of history (personal and collective) that can, through a poem, be activated.

In a poem, language remains itself yet is also made to feel different, even sacred, like a spell. How this happens is the mystery of each poem, and maybe its deepest meaning. Coming upon a word, having it rise up out of the preconscious, intuitive dream-state and into the poem, either to begin or somewhere along the way or even, blissfully, at the end, is the special reward of being a poet, and a reader of poetry. By being placed into the machine of a poem, language can become alive again. It is both what it is and what it means, but also something that is greater than the ordinary.

Somewhere, in every poem, there are words that shine forth, light up, almost as if plugged in. This is what poetry can do for language, and for us.


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