Not Elves Exactly

On Saturday I had the opportunity to lead a poetry workshop at The Letters Festival here in Atlanta, at the Goat Farm (that’s the beautiful place where the picture above was taken). I chose to focus my workshop on the question of meaning in poetry, which is something I always shy away from (in past workshops, lectures, and panel discussions I would always opt to talk about specific things, like the use of sentences in poetry, or jokes), but this time I decided I’d tackle the essential question head on. Here are my notes.

Not Elves Exactly

John Ciardi, poet, fighter pilot, translator, etymologist, TV personality (d. 1989), says we shouldn’t ask “What does a poem mean” but “How does a poem mean.” This was in his 1960s book, How Does a Poem Mean.

We should look at a poem as a system of images, sounds, and ideas which, taken together, arrive at something that can be understood.

Francis Bacon, the “father of empiricism” (d. 1626) said “knowledge is power.” To understand something is an act of power. When we understand something, we stand under it, we are shielded by it.

Contemporary Americans don’t like poetry because they don’t understand it.

But poetry isn’t meant to be understood. It isn’t meant to convey meaning. It’s meant to experienced.

Baseball isn’t played to be understood. It doesn’t have innate qualities of edification. It’s meant to be experienced and enjoyed. No one has a hard time understanding that.

Ciardi points out that in Italy, people don’t study opera. They are inundated with it.

We are not inundated with poetry, so we don’t get it, so we think we’re missing something and we give up.

I love this word “get.” What do we mean when we say “I don’t get it”? To comprehend something is to own it.

To understand poetry is to colonize an idea.

And therefore, it is to not understand poetry.

Megan McShea, the archivist and poet (still living) said “a poem isn’t a thing that means something, it’s a machine that does something.”

A machine, like Woody Guthrie’s guitar.

The thing that poetry does is expansive. It’s the best way to open our receptors.

In David Mamet’s pretty bad movie, Spartan, Val Kilmer tells a fellow soldier “you’ve got to set your motherfucker to receive.” I’ve always liked that. I think of it as “to be authentic you have maintain a subjective openness to all sensory experience—but I can’t just say it that way, because that unsays what I’m saying as I say it.”

The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (d. 1855) points out that it’s offensive to be told to think about this paradox: God, which by nature cannot be human, becomes human. It’s offensive, and to try to think about it rationally precludes ever understanding it. But then he tells the story of a king who falls in love with a peasant and wants her to love him, too. What can he do? If he takes her to his castle and makes her his wife, there will always be an imbalance. If he renounces his throne, there will be an imbalance. The way to do it, he decides, is to leave the kingdom for a while and then travel back as a new man, someone who understands life in a different way such that he is now able to live with all the folks. This way he can hope to someday encounter his peasant love and maybe tell her a joke, and they can go on a date, and then they can slowly fall in love.

And Kierkegaard points out after he tells this lengthy story, that he has now incepted you with the idea of Christ.

Poetry is inception, like the movie, that’s for sure.

But there was no way to communicate the offense this by talking directly about Christ. And as soon as you “get” the metaphor, the offensiveness returns.

It’s like what Paul said in his letter to the Ephesians: it’s by grace you have been saved, not by works.

What’s his name, Emmanuel Levinas, the Jewish ethical philosopher (d. 1995), said “to know the good is already not to do the good.” Meaning: you’ll be dead once you know the good. Meaning: the results don’t matter, it’s the Way that matters. It’s the going.

This isn’t exactly a “best is the enemy of good” thing. It’s more like the time I asked my brother how does he believe in God and he said, “I don’t, but I say I do, and then I do.”

Two people who are no good are Vladimir and Estragon. Shall we go? Let’s. They do not move.

It’s the unnameable, by the way, who says “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

Those are some Beckett things, FYI. Beckett died in 1989.

Matthew Arnold (poet and critic, d. 1888) said that poetry’s value lies in its interpretive quality. Which means that it’s only once a poem is read and figured out that it has value.

From this I intuit that, like, me writing the poem doesn’t matter.

But I agree with Matthew Arnold’s idea that it’s in the interpretation that poetry happens, more than in the writing. To me this doesn’t mean so much that the interpretation makes the poem. Rather it means you have to be conscious of your reader to be any good as a poet.

“I could say ‘Elves’ to him,” says Robert Frost (poet, d. 1963) in his poem “Mending Wall,” “But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather / He said it for himself.”

What does this quote-unquote mean? The poem’s speaker and his neighbor are trying to figure out why the stone wall between their property keeps falling down and the speaker thinks it’s elves or whatever, but he knows that’s not really it, and anyway if he were just to tell the guy he wouldn’t get it. He has to do the interpretive act.

I don’t know where Frost got the idea to say it was elves. The poem doesn’t predict it at all. It’s almost non sequitur, except that elves knocking down walls makes a kind of nonsensical sense.

Nonsensical in the sense that elves aren’t really a thing.

Unless they are.

But poems still mean things. I have no problem admitting that. But a poem is less about meaning and more about experience.

I don’t like poems that have something to say.

Today people are excellent interpreters. We can walk in on a sitcom that’s half over and “get it.”

Some very good poems can be explained in a meaningful way.

Any poem that’s any good can be comprehended experientially.

And Old Spice’s marketing team think this is worthwhile ad copy:

Ladies, can I take you to the freshest of distant cultures?
No. But Komodo can, and it will.
And I will too, so will you?
I hope so. I know so. Ice cream? Okay.

Now let’s look at these poems and then mess around with some of our own.