I remember when my seventh grade English teacher, Mrs. Lauderback, assigned us Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” She read it aloud, paused a couple of seconds, lifted her head from the book and asked us, “Okay, so, what does the poem mean?”
I bet that happened to some of you. In that moment, any possibility of you falling in love with one of the greatest art forms, a literary genre that reveals the deepest corners of the human condition, died. Nay; it was murder, pure and simple, and Mrs. Lauderback was the assassin. When someone in the class raised her hand and took a stab at it, saying something like, “I think it means he’s lost in the woods,” and that notion was not in Mrs. Lauderback’s head, she said, “Nope. That’s not it,” then looked around the room to see if someone in there could get it right.
For some of us, that was the last poem we ever read. Why read something that’s going to make you feel stupid? And that’s what happens—a lot of folks turned away from poetry, embarrassed, because they couldn’t figure out what it meant.
What does a poem mean? Not a goddamn thing. A poem isn’t a slogan. It’s not sending a message, it’s not a Facebook post. You don’t read verse to get information and never return to it. Because a poem—a real poem—has the power to tap you on the shoulder through your years and say, “You think you got me all figured out, huh? Read me again, dude, I dare you.”
So, here are the basics of how I read poetry.
Let’s say it’s an anthology of Gwendolyn Brooks’ poems. I read it like any other book, from the beginning to the end. But, unlike other books—say, for instance, a novel—I need to “prep” a little beforehand. The loud world—I’ve got to get it out of my head.
I read, first, silently. I want to feel the poem on the page. And, since this is a first read, of course I’m not going to understand much. Nor do I want to; because of its beauty, I can enjoy a poem without knowing what the poem is “about.” The poem itself, its very existence, is what matters. I read it over and again, returning to it over several weeks. What I’m shooting for is that its existence, and mine, graft together, and stay together, until the day I die.
One of her poems hits me—what do I mean by that? Hell if I know. I just know that her “When You Have Forgotten Sunday: The Love Poem” digs into my gut and whispers, “Come on, honey, read me again and again and again.” I take a pencil and put a check-mark next to it. I’ll pick out a handful of other poems throughout the book that catch my fancy, and check-mark them too.
For the next several days, I’ll return to “When You Have Forgotten Sunday.” I read it silently a few times then read it aloud. I do this until the juices start to simmer in my head. Already, without meaning to, I’m memorizing it; it’s grafting itself onto my cerebrum, where it plays with reasoning and emotions. It roots into my pons, medulla, the brain stem–my heart quickens, my breathing shallows; I feel warm. Oh, I knew, when I first read it, that there was some good sex going on, mm-hmm. But that was just a first read. The poem now pulses with the carnal.
But this sensuality is in the hands of Gwendolyn Brooks, so it’s not just some run-of-the-mill horniness slapped onto the page, no, not at all. No stark images of fucking, no generic, cardboard Game of Thrones copulation with clanking armor and ripped bodices. The lust/love in Brooks’ words, it’s, it’s. . .just read the damn poem, and you’ll know why, whenever it pops in my mind, I go looking for my wife Michelle.
It’s not just the theme of sex that’s grabbed me; it’s the way that theme unfolds over the page, through Brooks’ crafting of the flowing structure, the way the sentences feel like fingertips slipping down a thigh, her use of Emily Dickinson-like dashes in exact places that startle the lungs, make them constrict. Her word choices, “bright bedclothes,” “Sunday halves in bed” in the “limping afternoon.” Delicious.
And, as I reread and reread and memorize, more of the poem’s shadows and whispers rise: Hidden love, perhaps illicit and all the more tasty for it; Forced forgetfulness; regret; War. There’s so much in it, waiting for my life and experiences to return to it, bathe in its poetics, until I become more grafted to its existence and, in turn, my own.
Here’s a link to the poem When you have forgotten Sunday: the love story