In a recent post, “The Poetry in Dreams,” I promised to talk soon about how one “gets” a poem. Here is my attempt to deal with that topic.
To understand either a dream or a poem, we need to develop a new faculty, a “third eye.” William Stafford has another way of saying this:
“Poetry is the kind of thing you have to see from the corner of your eye…. It’s like a very faint star. If you look straight at it you can’t see it, but if you look a little to one side it is there…. If you analyze it away, it’s gone. It would be like boiling a watch to find out what makes it tick. If you let your thought play, turn things this way and that, be ready for liveliness, alternatives, new views, the possibility of another world—you are in the area of poetry.” (William Stafford. Writing the Australian Crawl. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1978, p. 3)
Teaching poetry reminds me that while we dream and write poetry in solitude, to fully engage a poem is a communal activity. (Similarly, to apprehend a dream, it helps to discuss it with someone—a friend, a therapist.) While I might sit down alone with a poem and enter into the poet’s world, with a group something magical happens. Connections I hadn’t thought of spring to life; observations that hadn’t occurred to me add a whole new dimension to the poem. I’m reminded that something similar happens at a good poetry reading: Perhaps hearing the poem with other interested individuals triggers neurons in our brains that otherwise might not have been touched, not unlike what can happen in certain houses of worship.
This activity occurred when I looked at one of Canadian poet Alden Nowlan’s poems with a class—”The Bull Moose.” In it he describes a moose that wanders out of a forest and ends up in a cow pasture. The moose’s presence attracts the farmer’s neighbors who treat it like a carnival attraction, something domesticated, though the cows that share the pasture have more sense: they back away and huddle at another end of the enclosure. In response, the game wardens have come with their rifles, and the
bull moose gathered his strength
like a scaffolded king, straightened and lifted his horns
so that even the wardens backed away as they raised
When he roared, people ran to their cars. All the young men leaned on their automobile horns as he toppled
(Jack David and Robert Lecker, eds. Canadian Poetry, Volume Two. Toronto: General Publishing Co. Limited, 1982. p. 129.)
My students and I talked about more obvious ways of understanding this poem, the bull moose representing wild, instinctual life that becomes trapped in civilization and patronized: We think we can control and tame it. But the moment the animal shows its true nature and majesty, we react with fear and kill it.
I then suggested that we could also view the moose as symbolizing what we do to ourselves, how we try to contain and control our own noblest aspects. However, when we begin to show how truly powerful we are, we kill those parts. The game warden/censor in our psyche rushes in and shoots this powerful potential before it gets out of control. The moose also can represent poems themselves that we don’t allow into our lives because they can be as splendid and wild as this bull moose, as tame and as mysterious, as difficult to control and as frightening. But why frightening? Why on earth might a poem be frightening?
One student observed, “They’re too deep.” This response captures, I think, much of what we fear in poetry (as well as in dreams): It carries us past safe waters; there’s no lifeguard on duty; we can get in over our heads quickly, taken out to sea. We can discover new territories in ourselves—uncharted, savage, uninhabitable.