April is the month of fools and poetry. Now, most people would rather be a fool than read poetry, but I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to be afraid! You may be one of the many poor souls who were inundated at a young age by English teachers who made you analyze the MEANING of a poem (as if there were just one single meaning). No wonder it is sometimes so hard to just enjoy poetry for what it is, and what it means to you.
So this month I’m going to try to shed some light on why I like poetry so much by busting open a few of the myths surrounding it.
MYTH #1: There is one correct meaning for every poem.
I’ll admit: it is true that most poems mean something, otherwise why bother to read it, right? But is there ONE correct interpretation that acts as a sort of “answer” to a poem? Many poems have a lot of built in ambiguity, in order to make many meanings possible. Could it mean this? Could it mean that? Maybe it can mean both or all of the above at the same time! It is fun to think about these multiple meanings and sometimes one interpretation affects another interpretation in interesting ways.
In fact, there are many poets who intentionally play with meaning and nonsense. James Tate’s Selected Poems is a good place to start for the adventurous among you who like to straddle the line between sense and nonsense. In addition his poems are often lighthearted, but with a sometimes dark center. Charles Simic is also a good poet of the surreal. His poems are odd, strange, and fun, and make just enough sense to keep you reading.
Of course, you may also enjoy a poem for its sound. There are two main aspects of poetry: sound and sense. So the sound of a poem is just as important as what it means (not to imply that they are in competition; in fact they usually complement each other). All poets concern themselves with sound, but Dylan Thomas is a good place to start. Try reading his poems aloud without thinking about what they mean. You’d be surprised that you’ll understand the meaning without even trying—the general jist of it will come through the sounds! There are also many spoken word and slam poets who put an extra emphasis on the performance and sound aspect. Check out this DVD if this is what interests you.
Lastly, just as important as the meaning of a poem is the way a poem looks on the page. e.e. cummings famously played with typography and layout of his poems to great effect. Check out some of his fun and still innovative poems.
A COROLLARY: Poems can make perfect sense! Just because some poems don’t have to make complete sense doesn’t mean other poems can’t be very straight forward in their sense-making. There are many poets who write in a more direct style, but a good place to start is William Carlos Williams. Many people try to eke out a meaning from his poems, but sometimes a wheelbarrow is just a wheelbarrow. Perhaps Williams just wanted to paint an image, so that the reader can be as absorbed in this rain-soaked scene as he is.