I woke this morning from a dream of reading. I was reading a long poem, rambling and prose-like, its meaning fractured. The poem had a very specific form in terms of the length and the number of lines, although now writing this a few hours later, I’m at a loss to tell you what the form was exactly ??? the details are properly dreamlike, hazy.
I couldn’t understand the poem, couldn’t unlock it, until, reading it again and again, I somehow realized that it was a poem about the ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan. With that realization, the poem suddenly made a great deal of sense. I understood its nature: its prose-like lines and the constraint of the form was a way to enter into the poem. And once I entered into it, I was able to make sense of what had before seemed like random and disjointed phrases. I was deeply moved.
I wish I could remember it now ??? it’s a poem that needs to be written. Or perhaps it’s a poem that someone has already written; I just need to find it again.
I’ve never had a dream quite like this one before. But I’ve been thinking a lot about reading, specifically reading “difficult” poetry, about how these kinds of texts require a different way of “regular” reading, so it makes sense that it would enter my dreams.
In fact, dreaming and poetry have a lot in common. Dreams have their own logic, and while the dreamer is hard pressed to explain this logic upon waking, she rarely questions it in the dream itself. Dreams operate in the realm of symbols, associations, and connections that make sense to the dreamer in the time of the dream yet often remain mysterious outside the dream. Poetry ??? especially experimental/avant garde/innovative work ??? operates in a similar way. As Kazim Ali writes in a different context, “It remains the province of poetry, an art made for the doubting and the doubtful, to create structures for meaning, to privilege and plumb the notions of bewilderment, doubt, and interrogative spirituality.”
Reading poetry requires openness to language and all its vibrations, associations, connotations. It requires a willingness to be lost as one is often lost in dreams ??? with the trust that the work of the language, through image, or juxtaposition, or sonic renderings, will bring forth meaning if one reads as an active participant. And that’s not always easy ??? in a recent piece on reading, Amy King writes: “Reading is action, exercise demanding strength of mind.”
What’s interesting to me is that most people don’t resist the mystery of their dreams, but they do resist mystery in poetry. I’m talking here about readers outside the world of “academic” poetry or experimental poetry. I’ve been mulling over the reactions that very intelligent people (who often read prose widely) have to this kind of poetry. One very smart fiction writer whom I admire commented that a poem I wrote made her “feel stupid.”
I knew what she meant. When readers come to poetry expecting to understand it in a way that they understand any other kind of written work and they don’t immediately “get it,” they feel shut out, excluded from the text, and dumb. It raises all sorts of issues of class and educational privilege, and perhaps brings back memories of humiliating or difficult experiences in school.
I’m interested in how to invite “ordinary” readers to participate in poetic sense-making, to encourage them to approach texts not simply to glean content or emotional empathy, but to create meaning in collaboration with the text itself.
I think this is important, because poetry has potential to be more radical than other kinds of literature, as the work of reading itself becomes an act of re-imagining how the world can be. Laura Mullen quoted in American Hybrid, says “There are politics involved in asking people not to make sense the way they’ve made sense before.”
This kind of text gives more agency to the reader, and is therefore inherently subversive. Lyn Hejinian, in her essay “Rejection of Closure,” writes: “The ???open text’ by definition, is open to the world and particularly the reader. It invites participation, rejects the authority of the writer over the reader, and thus, by analogy, the authority implicit in other (social, economic, cultural) hierarchies.”
How, then, do we invite the folks who are working alongside (some) poets to subvert hierarchies ??? activists, educators, social change workers, citizens who care ??? to enter into our work in this spirit? Those of us who are teachers and educators can do it in the classroom, but what about beyond? At public readings or in our literary journals and books? To be clear, this is not at all a question of writing more “accessible” work ??? this is a question of how to present the “difficult” work in a way that welcomes in rather than shuts out the majority of readers.
We all dream. Poetry is a way to open up the dream space within the waking life. How do we invite readers to bring their whole, lived experience to our poems, and trust in their own sense-making ability, just as they do in their dreams?