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In recognition of National Poetry Month

But what does it all mean? It is an overused word, certainly, yet much of our conversation is filled with this discerning activity. We assign meaning, we take it away, we build it up, we tear it down. We use it to identify with some groups and separate ourselves from others. It motivates and justifies.

Within some discourses meaning is everything. Jerome Bruner, the cognitive psychologist, was an eloquent spokesperson for establishing meaning as “the central concept of psychology – not stimuli and responses, not overtly observable behavior, not biological drives and their transformations, but meaning.” Within others it is the sickeningly sweet icing on top of an airily vapid cake. I was invited the other day to “post a meaning” to a set of lyrics I was curious about and searching for online, a generous offer to bare my soul in exchange for endless ringtone advertisements appearing in the margins of my Facebook page. I declined.

With poems, however, it is not the best question to ask – “but what does it mean?” One only has to spend a few minutes with Wallace Stevens to forswear oneself to a life deprived of every searching for meaning ever again. Yet a poem such as “The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm” is a sublime example of how to create tone within the strictures of written language. Stevens repeats and intersperses the title throughout the poem, creating a calm and quiet background. Or there is “The Waking” by Theodore Roethke, a stunningly beautiful villanelle with its arresting final stanza: “This shaking keeps me steady. I should know. / What falls away is always. And is near. / I wake to sleep and take my waking slow. / I learn by going where I have to go.” As to what it means, I have no idea, but I love it.

Better questions to ask can be found in a book by the poet X. J. Kennedy. In Knock at a Star, Kennedy suggests asking instead “What do poems do?” and “What’s inside a poem?” These questions are a friendlier way in to poems and are more attuned to the writing process than pronouncements about meaning. In this way one can smile with Ogden Nash when he writes, “Some primal termite knocked on wood / And tasted it, and found it good. / And that is why your Cousin May / Fell through the parlor floor today.” Or one can share Elizabeth Coatsworth’s feelings when she pens, “Down from the north on the north wind flying / the wild geese come: I hear their crying. / Run to the door, and do not mind / that when they are gone, you’ll be left behind. For whatever hears the great flocks crying / longs to be off, and stands there, sighing.” Asking different questions about poems reveals hidden treasures: the word music of Emanuel diPaquale’s rain, “Like a drummer’s brush, / the rain hushes the surfaces of tin porches,” or the beats that repeat in a Gwendolyn Brooks poem, “We real cool. We / Left school. We / Lurk late. We / Strike straight. We / Sing sin. We / Thin gin. We / Jazz June. We / Die soon.”

Leave the meaning making for others; find your own way in and follow up National Poetry Month with a year of reading poetry differently.

Nevin lives in Moretown.


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