A while back I saw and enjoyed the film, “Bright Star,” written and directed by Jane Campion, based on the life of poet John Keats.
During the early stages of Keats’s relationship with Fanny Brawne, she lamented that she still didn’t know how to “work out” a poem.
And his response was so wise, so wonderful, that I’ll give it to you here — largely because I think of it often, and because I cheered silently when the lines were first uttered, because they perfectly expressed my own beliefs about poetry:
“A poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving into a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore but to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out, it is a experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept the mystery.”
Beautiful, right? I learned that perspective on poetry a long, long time ago from a very good teacher at Oneonta named Patrick Meanor. Like any great teacher, he opened up many doors of perception and pushed us through. Thanks to him, I’m still walking down many of those same long, winding hallways.
Even while I strove, as a reader, for greater understanding and comprehension, I also learned to accept the untameable nature of poetry. Like nature itself, poetry wasn’t there to be mastered, some wild beast to be conquered with whip, chair, and cage.
If poetry was a howling wilderness, I refused to be its Cotton Mather.
You had to experience the poem, like a Mark Rothko painting on a wall, be attentive in its presence. Somehow by demanding meaning, or ownership — but what does the red mean? — we entirely miss the mystery of great art.
I really believe that. And I know that’s a romantic view of poetry and art. Which is why a part of me has never trusted the advanced writing workshops and masters degrees at various top universities (degrees which, I acknowledge, have benefited many writers far more talented than yours truly).
You can’t pick over poetry like a cadaver on a metal table. To that end, I’ll quote another classic, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” by Walt Whitman.
WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.