Why Poetry Isn’t Read: False Expectations
“Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” ― T.S. Eliot
Too often poems are approached as if they were puzzles, something written in code that needs to be deciphered. (And too often that is how teachers introduce poetry to students.) It is no wonder many people see no point in solving a puzzle when the solution is just a mundane statement.
But poems aren’t word puzzles. Poetry is an attempt to express something that cannot be paraphrased, translated, into unambiguous declarative sentences. Ambiguity is at the heart of it. It is about connotation, not denotation.
To ask what a poem really ‘means’, is to approach it with the false expectation that it can accurately be paraphrased into more easily ‘understood’ language. It means approaching the poem as if it were like some recipe from a cookbook where only metric measures are given, and one needs to convert grams to ounces because those are the only units on your kitchen scale.
Wallace Stevens said that a poem doesn’t mean, it just is. His point is well taken, but a poem’s very existence can certainly mean something personally to the reader who doesn’t just view it as a mere means to an end. We don’t ask what a Beethoven sonata or a Rembrandt portrait means, for their ‘meaning’ is their existence in our experience of them. Poems, too, should simply be experienced.