In school, we get told so much about poems that we never have to think about them for ourselves. We’re too busy applying our teacher’s formulae to them like weird little math students. But with poetry, there is no wrong and right. Or, at least, there shouldn’t be. I remember being accused of plagiarism by an English professor for having an original thought. The conversation went a little something like,
“So you plagiarised, I don’t know where you found the idea, but there is no way you could have written this sentence?”
(I think his attitude was due to the fact that it was the only good sentence in a 5,000 word essay, but we can pretend it’s because I was a marvel.)
“Eh…I got it from my head,” was my reply.
“What do you mean your head?”
He did not believe me and treated each subsequent essay, that I submitted, with exaggerated suspicion. The thought that I could write about a poem in the context of my own experience, without borrowing ideas, baffled him.
Which is where I am going with this sad little internet ramble. I think more people would read poetry if they were comfortable with the idea that a poem can only mean to you, what it means to you. With that in mind, these are my ideas on how we should treat poetry:
- You are allowed to not like the bloody thing – It’d be weird if everyone liked chocolate cake (most people do, but there are some utterly dumbfounding individuals that shirk the common trend) and by that same logic (yes, we are calling it logic) not everyone is going to like the same poem.
- You can interpret a poem any way you please – Just because someone else thinks it is clearly about the relationship between a man and his dead mother, does not mean it is. Does it say – the man and his dead mother– no? Well then, it could potentially be about a penguin who lost his egg.
- You should be able to say what you think without being snubbed by someone with a hard-on for the Romantic Era. Snubbing makes me want to throw vol-au-vents at people. I don’t keep vol-au-vents in my bag, or even go places that serve them (a distant dream), but they seem like a thing that should be thrown at snobby people.
- You can have a sense of humour about it – way too many conversations about poetry are the worst thing that will ever happen to you (and I include bereavement in that thought). It’s like an egotistical battle to see who knows more obscure poets. A sort of – I will see your bog-standard Seamus Heaney reference and I will raise you a Japanese nun who wrote five sonnets in her bathtub.
- It’s okay not to understand what the hell is happening – lots of poems are just really complicated maps to love affairs that never happened outside of the poet’s imagination.
- A bad experience (aka The Leaving Cert) with poetry does not reflect poetry as a whole – I believe that there is a poem somewhere for everyone. You just have to find the poetry that speaks to you.
We are going to do a small series on famous poems starting next month called – misinterpretations. This is an experiment and if it offends you, then there’s the option to throw potatoes at us afterwards. We’ll do one a month, until such time as we run out of the will to misinterpret things and everyone in the poetry world has snubbed me.