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What is the point of poetry?

Bless the English teachers hearts, but the most boring question you can ask about a poem is “what does it mean?” It’s why people hate poetry.

Such a question assumes a poem is a riddle. That, for some reason, this writer decided to eschew plain speech in favor of “sounding smart.” That, if the writer wanted to, they could have simply used other, clearer words to say exactly the same thing.

Of course, some poetry is like this and it sucks.

There’s something weirdly Protestant about this idea of poetry. Poetry is a text that must have a hidden meaning that requires careful study. Salvation hinges upon understanding the text and peering into the mind of the author. There is only one right answer.

When you answer the English teacher’s question, doesn’t the poem suddenly feel dead? “Is that all there is to it?” Of course not. You gave an unsatisfying answer because you were asked a bad question.

Poetry is about evoking a reaction, expressing a feeling, capturing a moment. The question is not “what does it mean?”; it’s “how does it feel?” How it feels emotionally, but also how the words feel in your mouth. And maybe a particular poem doesn’t move you. That’s okay! Move on. Find the one that does. When you do, you’ll feel it unlock something within you.

Note: The thoughts here are my own but I wanted to get them down into words after reading some similar thoughts in this post by John Halstead.

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