Even the in-class disembowelment of a poem’s meaning can diminish the personal, even transcendent, experience of reading a poem. Billy Collins characterizes the latter as a “deadening” act that obscures the poem beneath the puffed-up importance of its interpretation. In his poem “Introduction to Poetry,” he writes: “all they want to do is tie the poem to a chair with rope/and torture a confession out of it./They begin beating it with a hose/to find out what it really means.”
The point of reading a poem is not to try to “solve” it. Still, that quantifiable process of demystification is precisely what teachers are encouraged to teach students, often in lieu of curating a powerful experience through literature. The literature itself becomes secondary, boiled down to its Cliff’s Notes demi-glace. I haven’t wanted to risk that with the poems that enchanted me in my youth.
There is an article by Andrew Simmons over at The Atlantic about the importance of teaching poetry. Most of the article advocates teaching more poetry in schools, which I wholeheartedly agree with. One section, however, takes issue with the approach to teaching it:
As as someone who both appreciates and teaches poetry, I have to disagree with this. Analyzing a poem does not detract from the aesthetic enjoyment or emotional resonance one receives from reading it; in fact, it allows readers to appreciate it on a new, additional level. I can’t count the number of poems I’ve read through without interest, only to realize hours or days later that a close reading reveals something really interesting going on, making me appreciate its beauty in a way I did not before. I’ve never understood those who insist that approaching art critically somehow destroys appreciation of it. Is poetry really so frail that it can only remain beautiful if left unexamined? And teaching a critical approach to poetry is especially important, since students consume huge amounts of poetry (in the form of popular music), usually uncritically.