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On Poetry: Meaning, and Getting It, or Not

Here begins another year’s worth of my commentary on poetry, or life, or ideally the relation between the two. A number of people have asked if I’ll ever present the thoughts I’ve offered during these preceding 12 months in book form. That seems unlikely. I doubt any publisher would sponsor a volume consisting of one- and two-page essays.

I am nonetheless honored by these expressions of interest — and a bit surprised: as a late-comer to poetry as a mode of inquiry, which seems a reasonable way to describe it, I still find it remarkable that readers should be at all concerned with my opinions about it.

Still, I will self-advertise to the extent of saying that a book of literary criticism by my hand, A Hundred Himalayas: Essays on Life and Literature, has lately been published by the University of Michigan Press. Its essays are more expansive than these have been, and they cover a span not of one but of almost 40 years.

In those four decades, I’ve been both teacher and poet, each function a blessing to me, and furthermore, I hope, honorable pursuits. In selecting essays for the book, however, I confess I had a qualm or two. That, I concluded, accounted for my having so long deferred their presentation between covers.

Why the qualms? I’ve already hinted at one reason: my depressive’s sense that no one would be much interested in my opinions and speculations. But that was less compelling a reason than another, namely the ambivalence I feel even about old-fashioned practical criticism, whether my own or others’. Not that I don’t enjoy it — I do, a lot — but that I sense the critic’s grasp must always fall short. Or rather, it often becomes so inventive that it’s less a response to any given text than it is its own hybrid art form. The critic’s response, that is, turns primarily into something on his or her mind, which is likely altogether different from what the author had on his or her mind.

But what does any author have in mind?

A common question I’ve heard over the years, from aspirant commentator, person-in-the-street, and academic specialist alike, is “What is the poet trying to say? It’s as if she or he had some terrible throat disease. There’s a way in which a good poem is itself what it is trying to say, in which the poem is its own “meaning.”

And yet, when all is said and done, that meaning does in some respects remain obscure. When the obscurity is part of its design I grow impatient with it, but even if the poem seeks precision and lucidity, if it has anything going for it, it is surely at least other than one-dimensional. No translation of its “ideas” will account for its power.

Truth is, I believe that an ambitious poem will possess its own hidden allegory, an allegory hidden not only from the critic but also from the author. Oh, that author may tell you what gave rise to this or that piece of writing, and he or she may do so in entirely good faith. But I insist that his or her prose explication of the poem’s origins must always be far less than complete. In my own case, for example, I may claim that a recent and as-yet-unpublished poem was tripped off by my observing a particularly outsized oak leaf, and the claim is at once “true and scandalously insufficient. The poem does somehow illuminate aspects of my own spirit that I didn’t know were there, but it is powerless to render them in full. Yes, I noticed that oak leaf. But what in me turned it into such a big deal (at least in my own heart)? I confess I don’t know. Why, say, should that leaf have arrested my attention more than further recent news of drought’s effects on a part of Kansas that I have come to love? Why more than my oldest grandchild’s recent fifth birthday? I don’t know, and I don’t know.

Let me illustrate where I’m going by reference to another example from my work, which it took me a long time to comprehend even in part. In the early ‘80s, my younger brother died suddenly of an aneurysm. He was barely into his thirties, so needless to say, this catastrophe was just that, coming, so it seemed, out of nowhere. One unsurprising effect on me was a rather protracted abandonment of poetry. What, I wondered, was the point of “art” in face of something against which it would forever be ineffective?

Six months passed. I was out hiking with my dogs. One of them came upon some piece of rotten nastiness on the woods-floor and, doglike, began to roll in it. This put me in mind of a situation which by then was well behind me. Five years before, a certain local clan had gutted a deer right across from where my family lived, leaving the guts there to putrefy. I was and am a hunter, so it was not the kill that bothered me; it was that they would leave that mess for my dogs to gobble up and, to put it genteelly, to redeposit inside our house.

The clan in question was a hard-luck, hard-living kind. One of the sons would shortly die in a hideous car crash; another had beaten a neighbor to death during a drunken party, and had only lately been sprung from behind bars. In a word, these were not men to whom, if you had any sense, you whined. I let the whole matter pass, having scooped up the deer’s paunch and hauled it deep into the woods several miles away. In that moment, however, I imagined what might have happened if I had complained, imagined how an escalating controversy between their family and my own would have turned out.

When I got home, I sat at my desk, the itch to write having seemed to return. I then wrote a poem called The Feud, in which I played out that fantasy of violent vengeance. When I typed the last word, I sat back, my body literally shaking. The poem had ended up at fifteen pages – which I wrote in an hour, and, uncharacteristically, revised almost not at all before publication. Once I found the almost laughably simple narrative scheme the poem appeared to write itself.

Being a good Puritan, of course, I was certain that anything that came so quickly could not be any good. As the cliché has it, I hadn’t “earned” it. And yet various confidants pronounced The Feud one of the best things I’d accomplished.

Now here was the sort of hidden allegory I’ve referred to, though it took me about eight more years to see it, though I’m sure I still see it incompletely.

The relationship between the I of the poem and its hardscrabble antagonists was very much like my actual relationship to my late brother. We were the closest of five siblings in age, and were the closest otherwise too. And the most adversarial. I was something of a scholar and an athlete, which caused him to construe both those endowments as bogus and even odious. As I understood upon his tragic death, my smug sense of myself as his superior was much akin to the self-styled decent-honest-God-fearing narrator’s sense of himself vis-à-vis the unfortunate neighbors with whom he feuded. At the resolution of the poem, he has an epiphany: namely that all the virtues he has ascribed to himself are in fact paltry as measured against the grand moral stakes of his community, never mind of the universe.

The poem came so quickly, I now believe, because without even knowing it, I had for six months, so to speak, been doing research for it; indeed, I had been doing that research all through the course of the life I’d shared with my poor brother.

How would a pile of guts have led to such an insight? I still don’t know. And even as I present this plausible account of what my own hidden allegory was, I am conscious that even after thirty years I have at best decoded a mere fraction of it. So don’t tax yourself if you feel that you often don’t “get” this or that poem. You have a lot of company.

The writer, who lives in Newbury, Vt., is poet laureate of Vermont.