On letting go of meaning

“A poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving into a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore but to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out, it is an experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept the mystery.”

— John Keats, in Jane Campion’s Bright Star


Introduction To Poetry
by Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s
name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.


Maybe this explains why most of my college literature courses never really helped me appreciate poetry: we were trying to hunt the unicorn, rather than letting the unicorn come to us. (The exceptions being the courses I took with a certain Professor Ralph Williams, about whom more later.) For the most part, reading poetry for the joy of it was something I had to learn on my own, in quiet moments, alone: as if I were Keats’ Cortez discovering new realms, but also as if I were a silent continent myself, awaiting discovery, the ships of the conquering poets appearing one by one on the horizon.

This also makes me think, once again, of the misconception that science and poetry don’t mix. To take joy in uncovering some hidden aspect of a thing is neither to kill its meaning nor to ascribe false ones. Science doesn’t destroy mystery; it destroys ignorance, but increases awe and wonder.


“The realization that I needn’t have answers to the Big Questions, needn’t seek answers to the Big Questions, has served as an epiphany. I lie on my back under the stars and the unseen galaxies and I let their enormity wash over me. I assimilate the vastness of the distances, the impermanence, the fact of it all. I go all the way out and then I go all the way down, to the fact of photons without mass and gauge bosons that become massless at high temperatures. I take in the abstractions about forces and symmetries and they caress me, like Gregorian chants, the meaning of the words not mattering because the words are so haunting.”

— Ursula Goodenough, The Sacred Depths of Nature

(Photo credit: J. Dennis Robinson for SeacoastNH.com)


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