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on my mind today

"Introduction to Poetry"
-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 water-ski
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 a rope
and torture a confession out of it.

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

I don't normally post other people's stuff, but I read this poem (again) in a book of essays about preaching last night; the essay argued that often this is what preachers try to do with the text--torture a confession out of it, beat it into submission until it Means Something, preferably something that fits on a bumper sticker.

I decided to post it after reading Keith's thoughts on John Cage's 4'33''. His post and the resulting comments got me thinking about poetry and how often people feel defeated by it, as if the poem is one of those jokes with a non-sensical punchline that isn't funny, but the point is to try to get the person to laugh, thereby making them the joke.

It seems like a big part of the block for people is a perceived need to get at what the author had in mind. Certainly this is a part of the task of reading poetry, to understand the author's context and think about what she might have been intending. But too often that process deteriorates into binary issues of right and wrong. Two weeks ago Emily Saliers talked about being a vessel for the song, that creativity is about being part of a process that is larger than oneself. A cliche to be sure, but cliches usually are such for a reason. And if there's truth to her statement, as I believe there is, doesn't the work of art cease to be the 'property' of the artist in some fundamental way? Not completely, but perhaps that's a way to help people get beyond "I just don't get [poetry, modern dance, John Cage's music]. That huge canvas with the blue dot in the center?. I could have done that." OK, but you didn't, instead you're the one standing in the gallery looking at it, so what do you see?

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