The Real Work

During these anxious weeks, perhaps we can turn to poetry to give us solace, writes John Marsh.

May 1, 2020

As social distancing cut me off from my normal routine of basketball and tennis, I have started running instead. My route takes me to a park through which a shallow creek bends back and forth. Pennsylvania has had a lot of rain lately, though, so the water has run high, and now the creek murmurs and splashes as it passes over rocks.

Every time I hear it, I think of the closing lines from a poem, “The Real Work,” by Wendell Berry: “The mind that is not baffled is not employed. / The impeded stream is the one that sings.”

“Baffled,” in the next-to-last line, can mean perplexed, as when, in the first lines of the poem, Berry writes that only when we do not know what to do or which way to go do we discover “our real work” and “our real journey.” But it can also mean baffled in the sense of a baffle, or a device used to regulate or restrain the flow or passage of something, such as light, sound or, in this case, liquid. That sense proceeds into the final line, which asserts that we, like the stream, only come alive, only sing, when we encounter obstacles.

Thinking of these lines, especially the last one, I have, perhaps unsurprisingly, admittedly even a little predictably, hoped that this pandemic is the imposition that will lead us to our real work, the obstacle that, as Berry puts it, will finally make us sing.

Even if the pandemic does not lead to a collective renewal, it has led me to understand what poetry can offer those who read it. During these anxious weeks, the Berry poem has often consoled me. And I have hoped that those who do not know the poem nevertheless know another one, or another line from another poem, that brings them similar solace.

But I also know better. In 2018, the National Endowment for the Arts announced the results of their survey of public participation in the arts, which showed that 12 percent of adults had read poetry in the previous year. Perversely, that figure was a cause for celebration in the poetry world. It seemed to demonstrate a reversal of the slow, steady decline in poetry reading that previous surveys had found. From 2002 to 2008 to 2012, for example, the rate of adults who had read poetry fell from 12.1 to 8.3 to 6.7 percent. And it is true that you could say that the number of poetry readers doubled from 2012 to 2018. But you could also say, as a skeptic might, that only in a world of radically diminished expectations could 12 percent seem like a revival.

If poetry has so much to offer, as I think it does, then why do so few people read it? I suspect that, at least in part, it has something to do with how we teach it. And if poetry textbooks at all represent how we teach poetry, then we will have to admit that we teach it rather badly, and that we may need to find a new way.

Poetry textbooks tend to adopt one of two approaches to teaching poetry, neither of them particularly effective. Many textbooks try to teach students how to read poems by carving them -- poems, not students -- into their elements (tone, speaker, language and so on) and then devoting a chapter to each element. This method has its uses, but poems are not cadavers. You cannot understand them through an anatomy of their parts. One problem with this approach is that it treats all the elements equally when, in fact, two elements -- language and image -- matter infinitely more than the others. The other problem is that, like Humpty Dumpty, once you break a poem into pieces, it is hard for students to put it back together again -- or, at least, to think of it as a whole again.

If a book does not sharpen the knives for the anatomical approach, it likely favors the interpretive approach. That is, many guides to poetry, especially those written by critics and poets rather than academics, and often published under titles like How to Read a Poem or the like, try to teach people how to read poetry by offering interpretations of favorite poems. This approach also has its uses, but it substitutes outcome for process. It does not explain how the interpreter of the poem produced the interpretation in the first place. At worst, such an approach leaves students feeling hopeless. ("I’ll never be able to do that.") At best, it fills them with a resentful curiosity. ("How did the critic do that? How did they know where to start? How did they know what to look for? What to overlook?") Such books, that is, do not teach people how to read a poem; they teach them how to read about a poem. They are not guides but ersatz criticism.

Together, these two approaches to teaching students how to read poetry amount to showing someone how to bake a cake by listing the ingredients or by describing what a favorite flavor of cake tastes like. But no one learns how to bake a cake that way. They learn by following steps, by breaking the whole task down into its smaller parts.

Likewise, I believe students need a much more systematic approach to reading and understanding poetry, and in a new textbook I try to do just that, comparing poems to puzzles -- crossword puzzles, in particular -- in as much as reading poems draws on some of the same skills as working crossword puzzles. These include:

  • Proceeding line by line through the puzzle/poem.
  • Answering what you know.
  • Guessing at what you think you know but don’t know for sure, hoping later information proves you right.
  • Bracketing what you don’t know.
  • Using what you know, or come to know, including the theme of the puzzle/poem, to help you figure out what you didn’t know or didn’t know for sure.

I don’t mean to say that poems have definitively right or wrong answers like crossword puzzles do. (Although what many poems mean is usually a lot less subjective than most people think.) But I do mean to say that, as with words in a crossword puzzle, parts of a poem often fit together, and you can use one part of a poem to help you figure out another, just as you can use one word in a crossword puzzle to help you decipher another. I do mean to say, too, that students need to be much more systematic, much more deliberate, when reading a poem than they are with almost anything else they read.

Of course, poems differ from puzzles in countless ways. Unlike puzzles, for example, poems cannot be truly solved. When I finish a crossword puzzle, I toss it in the recycling bin. It has nothing more to offer me. The same cannot be said of poems. That is because, unlike crossword puzzles, poems are not closed systems but open ones. The best ones continually offer new insights, continually pose new problems. So no, no one ever solves a poem. But that does not mean one stops trying.

The problem, however, is that many critics and poets bridle at thinking of poetry systematically. Doing so, they argue, fundamentally misunderstands poetry. Poetry, they say, is not a puzzle to be solved but an experience to be savored. Its logic, if it has one, is not rational but associative. “When we release ourselves from the need to boil the poem down to a single meaning or theme,” Mathew Zapruder writes in his recent book Why Poetry, “the mind can move in a dreamlike, associative way.” He adds, “The preservation of this drifting experience is the purpose and promise of poetry.”

To be sure, some poems resist boiling down. Those poems, as Zapruder puts it, want “to make possible a conscious entry into the preconscious mind, a lucid dreaming.” (Among other poets, I think of the late John Ashbery.) Other poems occupy a position somewhere in between the lucid and the associative or partake of both at different times. Still other poems merely want to paint a picture or make music.

Yet nothing about the strategy of reading I recommend prevents readers from experiencing poems in these ways. When nothing connects in a poem, or in certain lines in a poem, or when it is obvious that we are only meant to look or listen, in short, when nothing boils down, readers would soon conclude -- as I do when I read such poems -- that that is how the poem asks to be read.

But no one needs to apologize for trying to make sense out of poems. Many -- most -- poems will make sense. Further, people who love poetry do not do the genre any favors by arguing that it always lies beyond the realm of sense. In addition to not being true, such a claim sells poetry short. Poetry often makes all the sense in the world -- especially the poems we turn to in moments like these.


John Marsh is an associate professor of English at Penn State University. He is the author of two new books, The Emotional Life of the Great Depression and the forthcoming The Puzzle of Poetry.


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