Two Ways of Looking at a Poem


There are, of course, more than two ways of looking at a poem. And that’s not to mention the ways of listening to a poem. But here are two of them.

Looking at a painting #

I suspect this is the way most of us look at poems, at least once we have freed ourselves from all the ways that schooling teaches us to not look at poems. (Not really look, that is – we are encouraged to glance, and maybe to hold and to tear, but not to look.) Picking up a book is akin to going to an art museum. We enter knowing that we’ll only really digest one or two of the paintings that we pass by. But we also know that when we see one of those paintings, we’ll feel something that we can’t really describe, and then we’ll stand in front of the painting, trying to memorize the texture of brushstrokes so that we can think about it later in bed.

(Last time I was at a museum, it was the ICA in Boston, on a cold early-spring day. There I saw a sequined horse’s head, pouring out from the floor. And I saw a photograph of a refugees in a camp by the border, taken with military optics, so that each of their bodies – sleeping, talking, holding one another – glowed with hot white light.)

This is how I first grew to love poetry. This would have been around junior year of high school – the school system had (foolishly) decided to give a laptop to each student, and I spent math classes browsing the Poetry Foundation website instead of learning calculus. I had a special love for Billy Collins, whose words opened little windows into his quiet suburban life. But listen more closely to the creek behind his house, and suddenly you hear echos of infinity.

As with anything that I love, I couldn’t stay satisfied with mere consumption. I was determined to become a poet as well, although I would never admit that as an ambition. “I’m not a poet, just someone who writes poetry,” I would tell the few friends who knew about my least-cool hobby. But, thinking back, I’m not sure that I ever understood poetry. I was always the awed visitor at the museum who went home to muddy paper with watercolors, never the careful art student who considered balance, line, and energy.

Here is something I wrote then:

Fortune Cookie
I found hope after a cheap meal,
tossed onto our table
like an afterthought.

I did not tell you of the little miracle
hidden away between the folds,
just slipped the scrap of paper
into my pocket,
and savored the taste of
the sweet golden future.

I was incredibly proud of it then, but looking back, it seems trite. Perhaps it was simply because, at the age of 17, I knew absolutely nothing of life. But I suspect it was also because I put so much stock in the visual aspects of poetry. It looked like it had lines, it looked like it had stanzas, and when you read it, it sort of looked like it could contain something interesting. It started with something completely mundane and attempted to generalize into something about Life, and in that sense, it vaguely looked like a Billy Collins poem. But I never understood Billy Collins poems beyond what they looked like.

Eventually, when I left for college, I stopped looking at poems. I don’t know why exactly. I suppose life started happening, and I no longer wanted to look at pleasant paintings of Florida sunsets.

Looking at (a) code #

Recently, I picked up philosopher Quentin Meillassoux’s The Number and the Siren. It’s a (paranoiacally) close reading of Stephane Mallarme’s 1897 poem, “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (A Throw of the Dice will Never Abolish Chance). Meillassoux is convinced that Mallarme has encoded a special Number (I won’t spoil which one) into the text itself, the existence (or nonexistence) of which is the key to deciphering the true meaning of the poem.

While one can read a painting as a coded message, this way of looking at a poem is about as far from the art gallery experience as possible. Under Meillassoux’s gaze, each of the sparse lines of the Coup de des becomes a hidden symbol, connected together in a subterranean network.

Most importantly, the Coup de des is not just something to be viewed – through the encryption of the Number, the Coup de des actually does something. Mallarme, according to Meillassoux, supporting the claim with various letters and manuscripts, has attempted to enact a real drama that creates new ways for meaning to exist – an act so powerful that it was meant to replace the Catholic eucharist.

Whether or not you find Meillassoux’s arguments convincing is besides the point. (In fact, Meillassoux believes that the uncertainty of the Number’s existence is key to its meaning.) What was interesting about the book was the way that Meillassoux assigned paramount importance to every minuscule detail of the poem. It was as if each line of the poem were a line of computer code, which, whether or not the programmer had intended it, produced a real effect on the machinery of the poem.

Since reading The Number and the Siren, I’ve started getting back into reading poetry again. This time, I feel that I’m beginning to get a little bit closer to how poets understand poetry. Of course, I’m still browsing through my poetry books like an art gallery, but now, when I’m arrested by a display of light and shadow, I’m a little better equipped to go beyond “that looks nice and makes me feel nice”. Now I realize that I’m looking at an alien device, programmed in a machine code I can barely grasp the outlines of, signaling something of unknown significance into the cosmos.