“A good poet tries to lead you into universal experience by leading you into the shocked concrete experience of one flower, one frog, one dog, one tree, one rooster. . . .” —Father Richard Rohr
A few weeks ago, when former US Poet Laureate Mark Strand died, I read a quotation by him about the twin streams of narrative and surrealism that are hallmarks of contemporary poetry. For some reason, googlability and all, the exact quote eludes me, so you’ll have to trust me on the paraphrase. My inner ears really perked up at the marriage of those two streams into one sentence, because, without trying to place myself directly into any particular style of poetry, I find myself drawn to both the narrative and the surreal in my own reading and writing. Even the act of placing those two words into the same context–narrative AND surreal–is something of a surreal exercise itself. The nature of narrative, of telling a story, is to make sense of a series of events. Surrealism is a breaking up of sense, a marring of the waters of sense and meaning.
This week, I ran across Matthew Buckley Smith’s Prose Feature in 32 Poems magazine, titled “Why Poems Don’t Make Sense,” and it sent me deeper into this exploration of the meaning of meaning in poetry. He suggests that sometimes poets engage in a cliquish game of “Keep-away,” writing with such obscure allusions (or with no definite referents at all) that only the in-crowd of poets and erudite thinkers could “get” the deeper meaning, which leaves the majority of people scratching their heads and saying they hate poetry because it doesn’t make sense, or else pretending that they really do find meaning where there is none or little to be had. He also writes that some poets may deliberately avoid cliched and conventional patterns of meaning-making in their poetry as a way to fight the oppression of conventional thinking.
When I write poems, why do I intentionally obscure the meaning, slanting the sense into images that–depending on your personal reference points–could take on many different meanings? Why, as a reader, am I so often moved by poems that are a series of seemingly unrelated images that seem to suggest a story or an idea, but only in the spaces between the images? I hope I am not being clubby, trying to make references that only the knowing and thoughtful in-group will understand. I don’t think so.
His other point does resonate for me, however. You’ll have to read his article to explore his ideas in detail, but here is my take on it. We use language to build the structures upon which we hang our ideas. Language is the scaffold upon which we develop whole structures of thought. Language anchors and shapes and breathes life into thought and idea. Conventional thinking, and conventional language, can end up being a pretty tight little box of a windowless building that doesn’t let in the light. The air in there gets pretty stale. When language–and its attendant ideas–become calcified and crippled into arthritic patterns, poetic image and word-use can find new ways to say things, can break windows into the walls of those airless rooms and build ornate new additions onto the old structures. Poetry jars the cart of language out of its constricting wheel ruts. This is why poets and writers can make good revolutionaries–if they know their work and do their jobs well.
Good poetry, I think, is more about finding your way by signposts than about following a map. It gives readers a few cues and clues, sets us loose, and then waits for us to say, “Oh! I recognize this territory! I know this landscape.” A series of seemingly unrelated but compelling images can spring to life when sprinkled with the fairy dust of beautiful language or the hint of a story. While I want to be able to understand enough of the controlling idea of a poem for it help me create some sort of sense, the most satisfying meaning that I derive from reading a good poem comes not through the intellectual front door, but through the back door of the emotions. Meaning made through emotional connection rather than mental processing often appears in the form of wonder and holy surprise, even when it comes in a painful or angry guise. Poetic understanding is gut-level understanding. I have long been a fan of singer-songwriter Paul Simon. I don’t think I know what he means about anything, but he always makes me feel something.
The sense-making in poetry is about getting behind the brain. A poem is a door. Sometimes poets make sturdy, locked, exclusive club doors that you can only enter if you are one of “us,” or if your can speak (or pretend to know) the password. A really good and satisfying poem is an open and inviting doorway that frames the view in a particularly compelling way. “Look!” it says. “Stand and stare. Take a deep breath. Then tell me what you see.”
Good poetry, I think, holds a paradoxical perspective on language itself: it acknowledges the inadequacy of words to completely map an inner geography, and it also steps with reverence and awe into the sacred space that language creates between writer and reader. Words are both inadequate and holy.