The universe is not only strange but stranger than we can imagine

But is it poetry? Part 2

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
  Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
  And the mome raths outgrabe.

Well, it rhymes and scans, but what does this excerpt from Jabberwocky (a poem by Lewis Carroll) actually mean? As far as I can discover, nothing at all –it is what they used to call a nonsense poem, a set of verses written as a joke, meant to be amusing. Sad to say, I find a great deal of what passes for serious poetry these days equally opaque and less amusing than Jabberwocky.

Asian man in a lab coat giving a shrug on a white background

Interesting — but what does it mean?

The fault may well lie with me. I may be a Philistine, too literal-minded to glimpse the gorgeous souls of the poems I speak of.  In which case, I must forever live without the rich insights that lie buried within them. Or then again, they could just be mediocre poems, impenetrable to anyone but the author and perhaps his/her close friends — a group of overdressed words gathered at a cocktail party for insiders.

Poetry does not necessarily reveal its meaning on the first reading, or even the second or third — at least in the sense that you can say, “oh yes, the author was talking about the transcendent feelings inspired by a lovely sunset,” or whatever the case may be. But I suggest that poetry — dare I say “real poetry”  — does convey something, some emotional charge or difficult-to-articulate insight, even on first reading. Consider one of my favorite openings:

April is the cruelest month
Breeding lilacs out of the dead land
Mixing memory with desire
Stirring dull roots with spring rain…

What exactly do the lines mean? Why is April the cruellest month? You could concoct a long, somewhat tedious explanation which would make sense, but it would probably not capture the emotional response to the lines, the sense of exuberance tempered by the perception of time passing, that comes with the end of winter and the return of spring. The lines have meaning, although the precise meaning may be elusive. “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood,” said T.S. Eliot. These lines communicated something to me the first time I read them, and they continue to do so.

But now, take the opening lines of a poem arbitrarily selected from a recent issue of Harper’s (with apologies in advance to the author for my lack of understanding):

Evening is the stalk
little skulls bloom on
while canyons recede
into the garden corners

I confess, I have no idea what this is supposed to communicate, if anything. Unlike the opening lines of The Wasteland, the lines do not spark any emotional reaction in me, any sense of “yeah, I get it.” The images are striking in what seems to me a rather self-conscious way — but what is the author trying to get at? What feeling or perception is he trying to convey? I couldn’t begin to tell you. The remainder of the work is even more opaque, at least to me. Some lines, from midway in the piece:

…but if we had a red shed
Then we could get a ship in the mist
if we had a ship in the mist
they’d let a robot watch us sleep…

Well okey dokey then.  Once more, I have no idea what the author is trying to say. At the back of my consciousness, trying to scratch its way in, is the uncharitable thought that maybe he doesn’t know either. Or, an alternative hypothesis: the author’s meaning can only be captured by those who know him and know what he is referring to when he talks about ships in the mist, red sheds and so on. The work becomes then the literary equivalent of a private family joke. (As Uncle Ned carves the Thanksgiving turkey he says “Hope I don’t have to shine my shoes tomorrow,” and family members laugh because they know the reference. Last Thanksgiving, Woofers the fat spaniel, sneaked into the kitchen, ate half the turkey and threw up on Uncle Ned’s shoes. Those not in the know just look at each other in puzzlement.)

Either way, I am left in the dark. The work just doesn’t communicate on any level with me.  I read it a couple of times, the words bounce off my consciousness, leaving no mark — and I shrug and move on. The author of the piece doesn’t care that I find it incomprehensible, and at first blush nor do I.  A few minutes apparently wasted, the warm impulse to read poetry a little more chilled, my (nearly non-existent) faith in the judgement of “experts” further eroded — so what?

Yet, on further reflection, the trend towards inaccessibility, towards literary elitism in poetry is unfortunate. When it works, poetry can be so compelling, so stimulating, the source of such rich insights.  When it becomes dry, arid, over-sophisticated, we lose something.  “Poetry should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance,” said John Keats, one of the great Romantic poets.  If poetry reminds us of who we are, its absence can be seen as a form of amnesia,  a washed-out bridge on the road back to self. And that, as the song says, that just ain’t right!






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