On Reading Poems

I’ve been asked to give a lesson or “crash course” on reading poetry, and now that it’s been brought to my attention, I think it might actually be one of those things that can’t be taught! But what I can do is offer a few protocols I happen to know of, some of which I follow, some of which I don’t — it all depends on the poem and why I’m reading it.

  • Think of the “speaker” of the poem as you would the “narrator” of a novel. It’s an error to read (or, some might argue, to write) poetry as though it comes straight from the poet’s mind or heart or lips. This leads to my second point…
  • Let the poem stand on its own as a singular work of art, much as you would a modern painting. (Granted, when it comes to epic and/or narrative poetry, that’s different. My subject here is principally with lyric poetry.) Who wrote it is a largely irrelevant and useless question when in the act of reading.
  • Considered metaphorically, Quantum Theory can provide useful ways of thinking about poems. One way is to think of the poem as a metaphor for an atom, and each line and word as a subatomic particle. Then consider that particles exhibit wavelike behavior and waves exhibit particlelike behavior, relative to what it is you happen to be looking for in a particular experiment. One could, e.g., say that the “meaning” of a poem is like an electron cloud of possible, even contradictory, observer/reader-relative interpretations. Giving a particular interpretation or “reading” of a line is analogous to making a measurement in a lab. The upshot is that what the reader brings to the poem is going to have an effect on what the poem “means.” Also, consider that how one interprets one line (or defines one word) will affect how other lines (or words) will be interpreted. I take the latter as a metaphor for quantum “entanglement,” in which one of two electrons — which had some kind of interaction in the past — being acted upon in the present causes a change in the condition of the other electron, no matter how far apart they are currently (what Einstein famously called “spooky action at a distance”). Perhaps the strangest thing about “quantum strangeness” is its usefulness, metaphorically and analogically, for literary analysis.
  • Phenomenology provides many useful conceptual tools. Anyone who has familiarized themselves with the paradigms of identities in manifoldssidesaspectsand profilesparts and wholes; and presence and absence in phenomenology ought to see how such types of analyses can aid in the comprehension of a poem. In my experience, just about any philosophical paradigm or “system” can offer a good interpretive apparatus for literature. I myself have appropriated Thomistic metaphysics to analyze John Donne’s “The Good-Morrow”; applied phenomenology to Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” and Lord Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott”; used Einstein’s special theory of relativity to explicate Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 116.” In some cases I used the philosophy to explain the poetry; in many cases I used the poetry to explain the philosophy. But in either case the endeavor is mutually illuminating to one’s understanding of both the poem and the philosophy.

For people (like me) who are great fans of Objectivity, a word. You probably think, “All of what I and so-and-so and my professor thinks is well enough. But what I want to know what the author thought.” I have great sympathy with this view, as it is one I used to hold. But the fact is that — especially if the author is dead — you’re never going to know. Even living authors seem to have a hard time explaining the genesis of their works. But never fear: there is an objective origin and meaning to the artefact, even if one cannot discover it. If there were no originary impetus for the artefact, how could the artefact have been brought into existence? Students of either theology or phenomenology (or, indeed, quantum theory) should be well aware that the identity or objectivity of a thing is in a dimension different from that which we have access to with simple perception. What we have access to are manifolds of said identity. These manifolds (i.e. manifestations) do not comprise a relativism; if it were all just relative, there would be no grounds, in the first place, to interpret the poem at all. It is precisely because we have access to these manifolds that we are certain that the identity positively, objectively exists: it is by means of the manifolds that the identity presents itself to us and for us, even if we are not able to grasp the identity in its entirety.

Returning to “method”, I think the most useful thing I ever learned regarding this subject I learned from my “principal” literature professor: Find a line or two that you think ‘X’ about; let’s call this your hypothesis. Then, use the rest of the poem as data which will either prove or disprove your hypothesis — a sort of Thought Experiment. In my own experience I’ve found that one or two lines will “stand out” more than others; and I’ll ruminate on these words and lines in my mind for some time, thinking about their implications, parallels to other things I’m thinking about, how they relate to the rest of the poem, etc. If I’m lucky, I’ll have an epiphany; there will be some insight that just ties it all together. It is this last part, in fact, that made me say in the beginning that I don’t know if this can be taught; i.e., I don’t know if everyone can get these “epiphanies” or moments of intuitive clarity. And, there again, there are a lot of other ways to read, most of which I’m not aware of. All of this has just been what was off the top of my head when presented with the problem.

Finally, I think that, as a reader, when it comes to poetry, interpretation is not an absolute necessity — one might even call it a last resort. I believe the best poetry baffles, bends the mind, and takes countless readings to even begin to become intelligible. Poems that have what I call “the nuts” are essentially works of paradox and fluidity; they leave me in a contemplative, not an explicative, state of being.

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