Entrances: How Do We Get into a Poem if the Front Door Seems Barred?
by Tina Blue
December 29, 2000
One thing I frequently hear from my students is the lament, "I just don't understand poetry." Ironically, I have encountered the same comment from time to time from people who love poetry and who even write it themselves.
I think those who feel at a loss when it comes to understanding poetry would be comforted to know that a lot of English teachers also don't understand poetry, even a lot of those who teach it! That does explain one reason why poetry is so abysmally taught in our schools.
A lot of the people who teach poetry teach only poems that were taught to them, and in exactly the same way that they were taught, perhaps by someone with as little understanding as they have, who was merely repeating what he was taught.
And even when the teacher does know a great deal about poetry, he may know nothing about teaching effectively, so that he may well make the subject so dreary and obscure that even the most eager student will decide that maybe he doesn't really want to read any poems after all.
I will say that a lot of poems are so obscure and complex that they are virtually incomprehensible to the non-expert. But most good poems can be understood and appreciated at some level by an intelligent and reasonably educated layman. And where "special" knowledge is required, it is often little enough that it can be tucked into a footnote for the reader to pick up as he needs it.
Some obscure poets are very much worth the effort to understand them, and some are not. Often the most obscure poets are merely pompous and self-important rather than deep and meaningful. Whether a poem is hard or easy to understand is not the main determinant of its quality as a poem. The criteria for judging poems need to be more directly relevant than that to the art of poetry.
Most half-way decent poems can be gotten into, though not always at first try. Sometimes the front door may seem barred, but if so, we can always go around to see if the side door is unlocked. If necessary, we can even jimmy open a window. And once we've managed any entrance into a poem, it becomes progressively easier to find our way around inside.
The problem is that so many people have a sort of deer-in-the-headlights anxiety about poetry that they don't even try to pay attention to what the poem says. It's like a code they must break, and all they can think about is finding out who might have the key to the code.
Here's my advice. Start off by giving a poem at least as much attention as you would give to a conversation you happened to overhear in a restaurant or on a bus--a conversation that you, for whatever reason, have decided to eavesdrop on. You would have very little to go on, and yet from the merest hints and most limited details, you would be able to figure out quite a lot about who the people are, what their relationship is, and what the context of their conversation is--what went on before, what is likely to happen afterward, and why.
Even apart from the technical details of poetry, a lot of its meaning is lying around out there in the open for anyone to pick up--if only the reader would look.
For an example of what I mean by this technique for reading poetry, check out my article "Eavesdropping on a Poem: How to Understand What You Can Understand."