Should you understand or should you work at it?

So, here’s a question. Is a poem better if you understand what it is about the first time you read it or is it better if you have to read it several times to ferret out some of its multiple meanings? I have my answer to that question but yours might be different.

Several years ago I attended a lecture by Ted Kooser, who was at that time the Poet Laureate of the United States. Of course, he brought poems to share, and I immediately liked his poems because although the metaphors were stunning and the language was musical, I could easily understand what he was saying. I like the poems by Billy Collins for the same reason.

Ted Kooser said that at the beginning of the 20th Century some poets thought that the Victorian poets were too restricted by form and content and decided to start writing a new kind of poetry which was part of the modernism movement. Ezra Pound was the leader of this movement and T.S. Eliot and others were influenced by it. Many of the modernistic poets thought that if the poem could be easily understood, it didn’t have the substance or sophistication of a poem that has multiple levels of meaning and had to be studied.

I applaud the modernistic movement’s focus on breaking the inflexible forms of poetry that had so restricted poets, but I don’t agree with the idea that if the subject of the poem is easily understood, it is an inferior poem. But that is my idea and others will disagree with me.

I remember Ted Kooser telling us that he wanted “the person on the street” to understand his poems so he often had his secretary read them and noted the ones she didn’t “get.” He went back and worked on those.

However, I recently read an article about a current poem who said that he didn’t want to write the kind of poems people understood in their first reading. And someday he might be Poet Laureate. Who knows?

Now, I know that all my readers do not “get” all of my poems, but I think most of them do and that is how I try to write. If you understand what I’m saying the first time you read one of my poems–then I’m accomplishing my goal. I guess I’m not a fan of hard work? 🙂

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About Lorraine Jeffery

Lorraine Jeffery earned her bachelor’s degree in English and her MLIS in library science, and managed public libraries in Texas, Ohio and Utah for over twenty years. She has won poetry prizes in state and national contests and has published over thirty poems in various publications, including Clockhouse, Kindred, Calliope, Ibbetson Street,and Rockhurst Review. She has published short stories in War Cry, The Standard and Segullah. Her articles have appeared in Focus on the Family, Mature Years, and Utah’s Senior Review, as well as other publications.. She is the mother of ten children (eight adopted) and currently lives with her husband in Orem, Utah.

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