Not all of us can be little birds, living hidden away in our fathers’ homes and writing poetry on tiny slips of paper; poems so powerful as to rock foundations ages after our deaths. We aren’t all that lucky. For those of us that are, in fact, still alive and attempting to write poems in the present, being slightly obscure seems to work out better than being entirely too forthright. I’m not saying that a poem is a lie, far from it, but what I am saying is that a poem with just the right mist about it can mean different things to different people and that every reader is going to bring their own experiences to the table. Stephen Dobyns seems to agree with my theory when he states ‘We, as readers, are always I search of our own stories. Achilles sulking in his tent, King Lear rejecting his favorite daughter – the context allows us to see our lives in those situations and so imagine and understand, to empathize with the suffering of the protagonists. And if we don’t have the context, we have nothing.” (Dobyns, 125) Context also doesn’t necessarily mean that a reader needs to know everything there is to know about Greek/Roman God/Hero myth in order to understand that Achilles is having a hard time coping or that the audience has to understand the finer points of leadership as viewed through Victorian critical lenses in order to see that King Lear is, well, King Lear. All that extra outside information that is specific to the poems content can help, but it can also bog the poem down in facts instead of impressions and feeling. Thus, a poem that feels beautiful can wither on the vine once a well versed historian on Native American pottery points out that a certain kind of vessel would never be used in that way… We all know these kinds of people, fonts of knowledge that can be useful but sometimes just bursts a bubble of warped perception that we would rather keep intact. I am not exempt. My family cannot watch the movie ‘Alien’ with me without hearing an entire commentary of the usage of symbols for innate human fear throughout the film in order to produce feelings of discomfort in the audience… you get the point. Content is what the poem is made of, context is where it comes from and also what the reader will have with them as a tool for understanding the poem.
Let’s talk about After Love by Maxine Kumin and what kinds of layers could be hiding there. The poem, on first reading, seems to be about sex. Okay, it’s rather obviously about the weird awkward moment right after sex, when you lay there with a goofy grin on your face (hopefully) and just exist. On second, third, and tenth readings, we start to gain something more, an insight into the condition of human relationships (not necessarily sexual) and our predisposition towards selfishness and self-preservation. Kumin points out that after an interaction with another person, nothing has actually changed: in a normal, non-violent exchange, neither person is actually any different physically than they were the moment before. But something happens emotionally, and Kumin gives brings in the wolf metaphor. I see ‘the wolf, the mongering wolf / who stands outside the self / lay lightly down, and slept’ (Kumin) as meaning that for a few seconds, a short time, maybe only a heartbeat, that things that is in us, embedded in our very humanness, that makes us separate from one another… it disappeared. It was gone, asleep, not worrying at our throats. The wolf, I think too, is a symbol for our fears of repression, anxiety at the loss of individuality… heck it could stand for any number of things and getting into all of them would make for a very long post.
But that gets to the point of it, really, though doesn’t it? The wolf, he could be anything, based on the knowledge and life experiences we carry along as readers when we go to read him. He could be a guardian to some and a monster to others. He could be read only as a female symbol in one culture and a mostly male one in another. Heck, there may even be readers who don’t know what a wolf is or how to imagine one, and thus the metaphor would be lost on them…because they would have no context at all. Any way it’s analyzed, After Love is hiding plenty of meaning in a few well crafted, handy and realistic words. It’s also making my point. We can be vague and allow the words to flex, meeting the demands of a more universal audience, but if we are too vague (or too specific) we risk losing readers in confusion.
Sarah Ockershausen Delp
Dobyns, Stephen. Next Word, Better Word. New York: St. Martin’s Griffon, 2011. Print. Nov 2016.
Kumin, Maxine W. “After Love.” 1970. Poetry Foundation. Web. 4 Nov 2016. <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/54772>.