The best piece of advice I ever got when reading a poem was put simply: "Never ask what a poem means, just read it, and preferably read it aloud." I have always adhered to this advice. The American poet Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982) said, "Just let the poem be!" In fact this advice appears as a couplet in a poem: "A poem should not mean / But be", and this became a classic statement of the modern aesthetic. This I also thought was brilliant. As I progressed as a reader of poems I begin to just let them be, let them speak for themselves, listen to their haunting music, the rhythm, the rhyme, the assonance or whatever magic those words sought to weave. Somewhere in the midst of those many readings some little "meaning" used to dawn on my consciousness. Admittedly, there are some poems which can be more didactic. Often I find that the didactic ones lose their appeal all too quickly as they have yielded us their "meaning" or treasure all too quickly. I have often found it good to struggle with a poem and it has only been the magic of the words that has drawn me back again and again to continue wrestling with them.
The following poem is also a favourite. It's called "Snow" and it was written by Louis McNeice (1907-1963) He is a brilliant poet. Once again it was John Devitt who introduced me to the poems of this great writer, even though I had done one or two poems by him for the Intermediate Certificate. I remember as a youngster being enthralled by that wonderful combination of words "incorrigibly plural," and have used these words from time to time. These words occur in his wonderful poem called "Snow" which I append hereunder for your slow perusal - if my adjective is redundant just read more slowly than usual! Before I quote the poem, here's a splendid piece of insight into his approach to poetry: "Poetry in my opinion must be honest before anything else and I refuse to be 'objective' or clear-cut at the cost of honesty." (Introduction to Autumn Journal). Here is the poem. Read and re-read, and all the better, if you read it aloud:
The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.
World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.
And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes -
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one's hands -
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.
I have highlighted certain lines that jump out at me rather than lines that are called "meaningful" as it were. Whatever these lines mean is only secondary in importance, the primary importance lies in the combination and choice of words - the essential magic and mystery of the whole enterprise of making poems!
Now, I am going to break my own rules and offer you another poem, a firm favourite, by Louis McNeice. He is a poet whose poems are really well worth reading and re-reading. If you can lay your hands on a volume of his poems - buy it. You won't be disappointed.
My second poem by McNeice is one called "Entirely" and this title I believe is so well chosen. Say this word in your mind a few times and play with all the contexts and occasions in which you use this adverb. You may be surprised. I remember, years ago, in a former life, when I was very interested in theology reading a piece by St Augustine of Hippo which I paraphrase here. It went something like this: "If you think you have understood something about God, then you haven't! If you think you have grasped the mystery, well then that's not the mystery at all!" McNeice seems to be saying something similar. Now the emphasis for me is on the "seems" in the previous sentence. I'm trying to keep to my essential poetic credo voiced by MacLeish above. I'll just try and highlight the words that jump out at me. Here's the poem:
If we could get the hang of it entirely
It would take too long;
All we know is the splash of words in passing
and falling twigs of song,
And when we try to eavesdrop on the great
Presences it is rarely
That by a stroke of luck we can appropriate
Even a phrase entirely.
If we could find our happiness entirely
In somebody else's arms
We should not fear the spears of the spring nor the city's
Yammering fire alarms
But, as it is, the spears each year go through
Our flesh and almost hourly
Bell or siren banishes the blue
Eyes of Love entirely.
And if the world were black or white entirely
And all the charts were plain
Instead of a mad weir of tigerish waters,
A prism of delight and pain,
We might be surer where we wished to go
Or again we might be merely
Bored but in the brute reality there is no
Road that is right entirely.
Louis MacNeice (1907-1963)
I'll leave you to select your own favourite lines. The choice is yours entirely!