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Friday, September 19, 2008

Roller Coasters, Trains and Labyrinths: Struggling with Poetry

Taste in poetry, as in other personal things, is an internal matter, an examination of self as much as a reaching out to the voices of others.” – Herbert Kohl

Reading poetry can be a ride on a roller coaster, a travel by train, or a walk in a labyrinth.1

As a roller coaster ride, it takes you to a literary carnival in which you feel a mix of thrill and boredom, fulfilment and frustration.  At times, the ride can turn your heart into a wild piston jerking in an oversized chamber or can make your head spin like a wobbly top.  At other times though, you get so used to the whole thing that you feel like a bored Mr. Bean whose only "excitement" is getting rudely awakened by a watcher long after the machine has stopped running.  It can happen, of course, that the reading experience becomes exhilarating as your creativity is stirred and your world becomes metaphoric, especially when you come across an extraordinary poem after having fed on the "usual" stuff.

As a train ride, this intellectual exercise can also be compared to a trip to Hogwarts school with the wonderment of a Ron Beasley, exclaiming “Wicked!” at every sight of an idyllic scene or a sudden display of magic. You feast on the poet’s bag of goodies and you look forward to a literary banquet at your destination. The poem leads to a whole new world for you to explore.

As a labyrinth adventure, it compels you to solve a puzzle with several attempts at reaching the center where you gain some form of wisdom. In a way, you become a sleuth looking for clues for the right direction that will make your walk in the labyrinth purposeful.  At times, you get cocky sure of where the clue is leading you, but you end up at a dead-end so you go back and try another passage.  As you decode and discover, you may feel like you’re doing a detective’s work.  And in this kind of preoccupation, you never rest until you solve the riddle or put together the puzzle and finally arrive at the center of the labyrinth where you can, with clear insight, enunciate the “kernel...of [the] poem.”  You then march your way out of the maze with a fresh view of your world and a thirst for more adventure in other complex sets of passageways.

A new dimension to the experience of poetry reading comes alive when you don’t have information about the poet. Herbert Kohl wrote:

“It is wonderful to discover and read a poem when you know nothing about the poet, have never read critical commentary on the work, and have to figure out what the poet is doing with language. [1999, 3]

I agree. On the other hand, it is quite vexing to be unable to find any source that talks of the biography of the author when you have just found meaning in her/his poem. For even as poems expectedly lend themselves to various interpretations according to who reads them, curiosity demands (at least in my case) a knowledge of authorial intent and background. And, notwithstanding the intrinsic-investigation-only approach of the dyed-in-the-wool Formalist, the socio-cultural context of a poem is worth looking into if we are to make full sense of a work. Without this background, the walk to the center of the labyrinth may begin to feel like a ride on the roller coaster or train.

In the final analysis though, what counts most in struggling with the poetic text – whether canonical or not, marginalized or centered -- is the meaning one finds in it. In regard to this, I quote Kohl once more:

Not every poem speaks to me, nor is every poem that moves me extraordinary. There are poems that move other people that leave me cold, and poets with major reputations whose work I don’t enjoy even though I know it is well written and moves other people. That is part of the magic of reading around in poetry – some of it will move you, some will move your friends, and some will simply be put aside. [ibid.]


¹Nancy Malone (2003) likens one’s reading of various genres of literature as a walk in a labyrinth – one that is more like that on the floor of the church at Chartres than that in Crete. I use labyrinth in the sense of a combination of the two – one that has blind alleys but promises a way out after one has found the center.


Kohl, Herbert. 1999. A Grain of Poetry: How to Read Contemporary Poems and Make Them a Part of Your Life. New York: Perennial.

Malone, Nancy M. 2003. Walking a Literary Labyrinth: A Spirituality of Reading. New York: Riverhead Books.

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