How Does a Poem Mean?
Posted on July 19, 2016

Many years ago John Ciardi wrote a book entitled “How Does a Poem Mean?” in an effort to make poetry more comprehensible to the non-lover of that genre. I don’t know how effective his effort was, but I do know that when we lose poetry we lose a valuable voice in the world.

As small children we loved poems. Remember? The more nonsensical, the better! Then, alas, we grew up and poetry suddenly became a foreign language, one we no longer spoke. The cynical among us blame schools for “teaching” poetry; others claim that “real men don’t do poetry” and the boys opt out. I suppose we can find many excuses but they are scarcely reasons.

I would maintain that poetry is dangerous stuff. The danger that I see in poetry is the insidious way it seeps into one’s being, touches emotions and feelings we might not want to face and then sidles into the recesses of the brain where it takes up residence. Only the very brave dare to invite it in. Czechoslovakia dared to elect Vaclav Havel as its president, a poet and playwright as an antidote to the dreariness of communism, and he brought a powerful voice to a world that had only known negativity for far too long.

Poetry is not practical. It needs to accomplish nothing. It simply is. It dares to name the most basic of our emotions as it invites us to consider our attitudes toward love and life, death and darkness, truth and lies. Once we open these doors they cannot be closed again.

The biblical tradition knew this. How else did that incredible “Song of Solomon” (The Song of Songs) make its way into our Bibles? To some it is almost sacrilegious to speak of God as a pursuing Lover. To the believer, the image nails the constant, loving role of a Divine Being who never abandons us and who longs to walk in the garden with us.

Or go to the psalms, poems that originated in a foreign language and which touch on every human emotion from anger to love to vengeance to joy, and then try to say “I don’t get poetry.” It gets you!

Maybe we need another book “Why Does a Poem Mean?” Better yet, I suggest we make space to live into all that a poem can say to us. Rediscover its power when other words fail and you are actually nudging prayer. Amazing, isn’t it?


Post Your Comment