Solving Poetry

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:

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.

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.

One thought on “Solving Poetry

  1. I agree with both you and Billy Collins.

    With Collins: I’ve seen my share of people beating poems with a hose to find out What It Really Means, and it was never a pretty sight. The problem lies in treating poems like a code or secret message: here’s the poet talking about trains, but what he Really Means is a critique of Western capitalism, etc.

    To drive the point, what I like to do is to introduce them to poems which actually are riddles – namely, Old Norse riddle-poems. Then I say: see? In this kind of poetry, the goal is to find out What It Really Means. But most other poetical traditions are not like this. You don’t listen to a Metallica song because they have critiques of Western capitalism (or whatever) hidden behind a decorative dressing of similes and metaphors; if you wanted to see Western capitalism critiqued, you’d just read straight-up critiques of Western capitalism; rather than decoration, the words themselves are the reason you used to scream Metallica lyrics in your room (then we proceed from this point: what’s so interesting about these particular words arranged in this particular way?)

    With you: I entirely agree that analyzing poetry is a rewarding and enriching way of engaging it, even the best way – to paraphrase Feynman, understanding them better only ever adds, never subtracts. What I think Billy Collins is criticizing isn’t analysis per se, but the urban myth of The Real Meaning (singular), and the popular model of poetry as some sort of frilly dressing-up of this One Real Meaning, and in analysis as tearing out The Real Meaning from this dressing. The effect of actual literary criticism, however, is precisely the opposite. To borrow a model from Valéry, reading is an act that generates new trains of thought in your mind; and an analysis-informed reading is able to generate more of those personal meanings, not less.

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