Poetry: Is It for Writers More than Readers?
A definition of poetry? Its meaning is apparently difficult
enough that my dictionary uses circular defining, with "The
art or work of a poet" as the first entry. The other definitions
found there don't clarify this much ("a division of literature").
Maybe we could define it as "The use of words in a primarily
artistic (as opposed to informational) form."
However we define poetry, a given poem often can't be enjoyed
universally, or even easily judged. This is because unlike writing
that "explains" things, poems use words to evoke scenes
and emotions more directly. The connotations words have are cultural,
so most poems don't translate well. (An exception is haiku, which
translates better because of it's heavy reliance on simple nouns
and verbs). Certainly the concept of "apple pie" and
the words "red, white and blue" could evoke more feeling
in an American than in someone from Mongolia.
Beyond the larger cultural connotations of words, though,
is the issue of the personal meaning words and even scenes have
for each of us. A line like "Making love by the dashboard
lights," (from a Meatloaf song) may be very poetic to some,
but meaningless or even offensive to others. It depends on the
experiences of the reader, and the personal meaning attached
to the words.
Consider the following stanza from "Their Eyes":
Shame becomes a smaller thing
The first time you reach down
On the side of the road
To pick up a can or a bottle;
Pick it up and put it in your bag
Without hesitation, without waiting...
For traffic to clear.
For some readers this would be meaningless. For others it
could be understandable, because they know that in some areas
people collect cans and bottles to turn them in for a refund
or for the scrap aluminum value, and that the people who
do this are looked down on or pitied. However, the person who
has actually done this, who may have been homeless and needed
to collect cans - that person can relate more deeply to the poem.
This is not a widely shared experience, so it may not be a
poem that can be widely appreciated. On the other hand, writing
poetry like this can be very cathartic and meaningful to the
writer. It can even help him understand the feelings he has.
This is why poetry is often more for the sake of the writer than
Lost love can be related to by millions. A margarine tub full
of blueberries can bring back childhood memories for hundreds
of thousands. Maybe a few hundred of us can relate to the sense
of peace that comes from collecting blueberries on rocky islands
a day from the nearest road. Without further explaining, two
shoes on a tree stump might bring just one person to tears, while
being meaningless to the rest of the world.
Naturally these things can be explained, and all personal
experiences can be made more universally understandable in good
poetry. However, as with jokes, the impact can be lost with too
much explanation. It is wonderful to be able to touch others
with your words, but in the end, perhaps the value of a poem
starts and ends with its value to the poet.
Steve Gillman has been playing with poetry for thirty years.
He and his wife Ana created the game "Deal-A-Poem,"
which can be accessed for free at: