By Channa Goldman
I was seventeen years old when I read HOWL by Allen Ginsburg, and three billion firecrackers went off in my chest at lines such as: “I’m with you in Rockland/ where we hug and kiss the United States under/ our bedsheets the United States that coughs all/ night and won’t let us sleep”; or: “On the impulse of winter midnight streetlight small town rain.” The latter line I found so beautiful that I’d reread it every day for the next three years, and I still think about that image often. Now, as a twenty-year-old studying poetry at Purchase College, if you asked me what I think those lines mean, I could give you an answer. Or, I could be honest and cut the bullshit — and say I don’t really know, and I don’t really think it matters. I think the importance of Ginsburg’s work is in image, mood, and the emotion the poem evokes, rather than trying to discern some secret meaning.
In the analysis of poetry, it’s common to dissect a poem as one would an insect in biology, but instead of medical instruments, one uses poetic jargon to interpret the poem’s ‘meaning’— and too often, this results in the notion held by many that poetry is for poets— not everyone. Many people have told me that they don’t read poetry because they can’t understand the “meaning,”— as if there’s one secret message to be discerned. When discussing poems, I hear endless language all aimed towards articulating the ‘meaning,’ and too often, if you can’t articulate that exact meaning, you’re just made to feel like you’re missing something. Well, I say that’s not necessarily the entire aim of poetry.
Don’t get me wrong— some poems are written with the intention of readers deriving a specific moral or message, and of course that’s great. I am advocating on behalf of the poems that aren’t, and how we shouldn’t feel the need to read them and pick them apart for something that wasn’t intended. Poetry, like any art form, employs technical craft and skill. There are rules and practices which guide a particular form, and it’s not all random. But this shouldn’t deter the average person from deriving pleasure from reading poems. If at seventeen someone told me I ‘didn’t get’ HOWL, I probably would’ve cried. Ginsburg opened the door for me to fall in love with sound and language. It didn’t matter that I didn’t necessarily get ‘the message’. The feeling a poem evokes in the reader is as equally powerful.
Non-poets can take from a poem what is meaningful to them, whether that be an image or turn of phrase. So you don’t talk about the pentameter of a poem, or its cadence, or how many lines are in a sonnet, or what the hell a sestina is. Should that prevent you from avoiding the form altogether? Is poetry just for poets? I think not. The power of poetry is something everyone can access in varying degrees, and anyone who tells you otherwise is simply missing the magic.