The Argotist Online
Poetry in Turbulence
(or how to enjoy poetry without really understanding it)
To many non-specialists of literature, poetry is deeply unsatisfying. There are several reasons for this, but two in particular come to mind. The first is that most poetry is overly descriptive, leaving little to the imagination; the second is that the rest of it is abstruse. This presents the non-specialist with a dilemma: either to persevere in the thankless task of attempting to unravel (what must be to them) an increasingly unrewarding literary crossword; or to make do with the superficialities of descriptive verse and the resultant ennui. Both projects would presumably confirm any prejudices that these readers entertained about the relevancy of poetry to their lives. In circumstances such as these, I think it would be appropriate to introduce a method of poetic appreciation, which, although admittedly unorthodox, would encourage the non-specialist to revise any negative opinion of poetry held.
The first thing that has to be drawn to the attention of these readers is the fact that it is up to them to come to an understanding of the poem. The poem is unlikely to facilitate such a response without this active participation on their part. The main thing to point out to them is that valuable time and effort would be wasted in attempting to look for the poem's intended meaning. Rather, a more helpful course would be to encourage readers to actively engage in their own particular and personal exegetical responses to the text—however idiosyncratic or perverse the results of this may appear.
It is of minor importance whether the commonly received meaning of the poem is discerned by the reader or not, as the ultimate aim of such a personal response is to enhance the enjoyment value of the work as opposed to engaging in a scholastic deciphering of its hermetic aspects. What the poem is meant to mean (either from a textual or authorial viewpoint) should not be of paramount concern for readers wishing to gain satisfaction and enjoyment from the work. On the contrary, surface meaning can sometimes be more of a disadvantage than a blessing, as in such instances the poem disallows the mind an active part in the creative process that the enjoyment of literature requires. Incidentally, the more specific and apparent the surface meaning of a poem is, the harder it is to identify with. Keats came to a similar conclusion when he said that a poem ‘should surprise by a fine excess and not by singularity . . . it should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance’ (letter to John Taylor, 27 February 1818).
However, there are poets who disagree: aiming to delight by pure observational descriptive accuracy. They use poetry in the same way a novice art student uses a pencil to draw a still life. A satisfying poem, on the other hand, is one that enters the readers' minds and turns the key to their imagination. It enables them to find meanings and emotions that hold a particular significance and relevance to their experience because of the process of filtration via memory. A poem that fails to satisfy does the opposite: it tells you what it is about, the emotions you are to feel and the understanding you are to have.
Each reader should be permitted the fundamental privilege of formulating a meaning which would (for that reader) be the quintessence of the poem's significance. The poem, in and of itself, is of little consequence other than as a cipher for this practice to occur. The words and images of a poem should be looked upon as devices that enable readers to recall their own experiences, reflect present circumstances, and anticipate future desires. Each word should be twisted, stretched, moulded and free‑associated from in order to signify anything the reader wants them to signify. By doing this, the reader becomes, in effect, the composer of the poem, and the definer of its limits. Such an approach to reading poetry, if widely understood and accepted, could possibly restore poetry to its status as an important and popular art form.
© Jeffrey Side
Side has had poetry published in various magazines such as Poetry Salzburg
Review, and on poetry web sites such as Underground Window, A
Little Poetry, Poethia, Nthposition, Eratio, Pirene’s
Fountain, Fieralingue, Moria, Ancient Heart, Blazevox, Lily, Big Bridge, Jacket,
Textimagepoem, Apochryphaltext, 9th St.
Laboratories, P. F. S. Post, Great Works, Hutt, The Dande Review, Poetry Bay and Dusie.
He has reviewed poetry for Jacket, Eyewear, The Colorado Review, New Hope International, Stride, Acumen and Shearsman. From 1996 to 2000 he was the deputy editor of The Argotist magazine.
His publications include, Carrier of the Seed, Distorted Reflections, Slimvol, Collected Poetry Reviews 2004-2013, Cyclones in High Northern Latitudes (with Jake Berry) and Outside Voices: An Email Correspondence (with Jake Berry), available as a free ebook here.