Along with the compressed-ness that belongs to poetry, there’s also this: understanding poetry is an experiential rather than a cognitive process. Pastor and author Eugene Peterson explains that “We do not have more information after we read a poem, we have more experience” (Reversed Thunder, 1988).
Certainly, we can, with some poems, distill a meaning into a sentence and give that sentence as an “understanding” of the poem. But we cannot, in that one-sentence — or even one-paragraph or one-page — distillation, capture what reading the poem provides.
Because poetry is sound as well as sense, image as well as idea, so that poetry does not belong to the mind only, but belongs to the ear and the eye, and sometimes to the fingers, to the tongue, to the heart.
I can tell you that Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “Spring and Fall: to a young child” compares physical seasons with states of the human soul and stages of life, playing on dual meaning of “fall” as a season and “fall” as the fall of man and tracing all human grief back to that original fall. To some degree, I have given you the sense of the poem, but I doubt that possessing that sense you feel in any measure enriched: my statement does not capture the beauty, the longing, the ache of it.
Try the poem, then:
Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Áh! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wÍll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s sprÍngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
Isn’t the poem better? Because the poem is not primarily about communicating the sense I wrote above. The poem is about an experience of sound and sight and emotion. The poem lets us taste the sorrow and hear and feel and see the settling leaves as they drop and drop and drop. The poem gives us an experience, not information, and, as is often the case in life, we gain more from the experience than we gain from the information.
Experience is more complicated than information. It requires us to participate rather than simply receive. This is why, I think, poetry intimidates so many people. It is also, I think, why it’s worth braving the intimidation.
©2013 by Stacy Nott