On Reading

How I Understand Poetry

I remember in high school being forced to take poems apart line by line. We’d do a few together as a class, which took a better part of the hour, and then we would write one long essay over a more complicated poem on Fridays.

To me, there was something weirdly clinical about the whole procedure. It felt like I was being asked to venture into the wild, find a cute animal, and then slice it into bits. 


After I’d disassembling it, the poem seemed to have lost a lot of its beauty in the process.

It was a lot like trying to explain a joke. If you have to tell someone why it’s funny, it’s not humorous anymore.

Not to mention I hardly ever saw the poem the same way everyone else did. 

I would read a poem, thinking it was about a dog being taken on a walk, when in reality it was about a woman escaping a fire. I was so astronomically wrong with my interpretations of what each poem was about, it was as if I had been rewriting it in my head as I read.

It was like we were all given the same map to Tulsa and I somehow wound up in France. 

The thing is, I didn’t mind being wrong about what the poem was about. I minded that my English teacher minded what I thought the poem was about.

During one class period, the teacher and another student got into an argument about the meaning of a poem we were discussing for the AP English test. I can’t recall which poem it was, but most of us were in agreement that the poet was trying to say one thing, while the teacher told us he was trying to say something else entirely. 


The student, acting as the class representative, provided ample evidence to support our claim while the rest of us nodded our heads. However, the teacher sternly ended all discussion by informing the student that he was “just wrong” and there was no disputing this.

I am not a poet. However, I don’t believe that poetry requires a uniform meaning. In fact, I don’t think most artistic creations require a definite meaning either. I am of the belief that as long as the observer/reader can obtain some benign meaning from the piece, then it has done its job.

This is especially true of poetry, which isn’t always as straight forward as other forms of literature. There’s something more ethereal about poetry than fiction.

It’s harder to get a handle on.

It’s like trying to collect mist in a jar.

It’s something you experience rather than just “understand.”

I believe that poetry should be taught in schools. However, I don’t think it should be treated the same way math is where 2+2 always equals 4.

Students should be taught that poetry is freedom and not just another assignment.

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