Column by Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas

“I never got poetry,” someone says to me again. And I sigh.

Because I never got it either – at least not until I learned to stop worrying about “getting it.”

In fact, “get” – with its connotation of acquisition and possession – is the wrong word for what we do with poetry. It suggests that a poem is something we take in order to have or keep it. As if a poem were a half-gallon of 2 percent milk to be picked up on the way home.

Walt Whitman jokes about this approach to poetry in Section 2 of “Song of Myself”: “Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?” he asks. “Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?” Instead, Whitman urges a more sensory, individual reading of poetry:

You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self. (i)

Whitman mentions another word that often complicates our experience of poetry: “meaning.” Meaning is the elephant in the poem’s cramped room, especially if that meaning is perceived to be “deeper” or “hidden.”

If we are supposed to get a poem, its meaning is what we are supposed to get. The poem has whispered us its secrets; the matter is settled for good, and we can move on to lunch and recess.

You might be all too familiar with this approach to poetry, especially if your experiences with poetry have taken place primarily in classrooms. Too many of us have been taught that poems resemble riddles to be solved rather than music to be heard or meals to be relished.

Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems? We may answer no, because we remember being told that our ideas about poems were wrong, that the author meant something else entirely, and that what the author meant was what mattered most.

By the time I got to high school, I was so conditioned to seek the meaning of a poem that when I read “A poem should not mean / But be” (Archibald MacLeish), I wanted to demand: But what does that mean? (ii)

The riddle – unraveling strategy might work well on the AP test, but I fear it diminishes the real value of poetry, the pleasure of its sounds, its potential to help us make meaning in and of our lives.

I think we need to change our approach.

I ask my students to consider the word meaning as a verb instead of a noun. That is: meaning is not something we achieve, arrive at, or get; instead, imagine that meaning is something we do, an active process through which we make sense of language and the world.

We may like to think of words as “having” definitions, the way we might have blue or brown eyes. In this model, words mean what “the dictionary” says they mean. But anyone who has ever argued about what particular shade of blue this or that blue is – navy, cobalt, midnight – knows perfectly well how slippery words can be.

So, just as “get” is the wrong word for poetry, I also believe that “What does a poem mean?” is the wrong question.

Robert B. Pierce, professor emeritus of Oberlin College, asks a better question in an essay called “How Does a Poem Mean?” That how is especially important because it changes the way we think about meaning itself.

Meaning is not a fixed entity, the answer to some trivia question we’ll never be asked. Meaning changes. Just think about what the seemingly innocent word love meant to you at age 8, and age 16, and what it means to you now.

If we must think of the poem as possessing a meaning, that meaning is neither the exclusive property of the poet nor of the audience. Meaning is a process in which we participate; we collaborate with the poet themselves to bring the poem to life between us.

In this model, “meaning” is not the answer to a trivia question: What is the capital of England? Instead, Pierce writes, to understand a poem “is like knowing a city, such as London. To know London is to be at home there; there is no set of pieces of information that constitutes my knowing the city, though information is part of the whole” (283). To know London, or a poem, we must first understand “that there is no one thing to know” (284). (iii)

To get to know a city, as Pierce suggests, you would need to walk its streets, sample its cafes, eavesdrop on the locals’ conversations. You would need to know where the museums are, of course, but you would also need to know how those museums smell, how it feels to stand in the cool marble halls.

To get to know a poem, you need to read it, ideally again and again. Better yet: hear it, say it aloud. Feel its sounds in your throat; try writing it out in your own hand.

Try it with Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays,” a poem you might indeed have encountered in a classroom. You might have learned that the poem portrays an adult’s conflicted memories about childhood and a distant, if dutiful, father. None of that is wrong, but none of it is enough.

Instead, say the poem aloud until you can hear in your own voice the crackling of the fire Hayden recreates with “b” and “l” and “k” sounds:

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him. (iv)

Write out those lines until your own fingertips touch the stealthily echoing rhymes of “blueblack” and “cracked,” “banked” and “thanked.”

Then go back and notice that sneaky “too” in the opening line. That one word allows us insight into years of the family dynamic in the poem. “Sundays too” – this day, like all days, “I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.”

If you can hear it too, then you have become the poet’s collaborator. You and Hayden are “meaning” the poem yourself. And I suspect you will wince all the more at the heart-wrenching repetition at the end of the poem: “What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices?”

Forget “deep meanings.” The best stuff is right there on the surface, if we can stop taking it for granted.

What’s deep is the pleasure we can find if we stop worrying that something is hidden. What there is to get is the sense that the poem belongs to us just as much as to the poet, that we make its meanings together. That the poem can be the place where we meet. CV

Dave Lucas is the author of “Weather” (VQR/Georgia, 2011), which received the 2012 Ohioana Book Award for Poetry. Named by Rita Dove as one of 13 “young poets to watch,” he has also received a “Discovery/The Nation Prize and a Cleveland Arts Prize. In 2018 he was named the second Poet Laureate of the State of Ohio. A co-founder of Brews + Prose at Market Garden Brewery and Cleveland Book Week, he lives in Cleveland, where he was born and raised.

(i) Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself.”

(ii) Archibald MacLeish, “Ars Poetica.”

(iii) Robert B. Pierce, “How Does a Poem Mean?”

(iv) Robert Hayden, “Those Winter Sundays.”

Lead image: Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas speaking at Brews + Prose at Market Garden Brewery in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood. | Photo / Carissa Russell

Column by Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas

This is a love story.

This is the story that led me here, writing to you about how and why I fell in love with poetry, and what I think you can find there, too.

No story ever gets love – or life – quite right. We become who and what we become through the uncanny confluence of opportunity and habit, tactic and accident. How easily in hindsight chance and dumb luck and sometimes dumber choices come to look like fate.

How grateful I am, then, for the chances and choices of my sophomore year at John Carroll University. I had dabbled in poetry, as many teenagers do, writing poems about being misunderstood that were themselves impossible to understand. I had wondered if poetry might hold something I seemed to need – meaning, maybe, or beauty or wisdom.

But there, in George Bilgere’s workshop, I began to suspect that poetry might be not merely an interest for me but also a calling.

That spring, too, I fell in love – the romantic kind, complicated and hopeless – for the first time. She was older, brilliant and beautiful, and (to my astonishment) she was interested in me, of all people.

You know this story already, or a version of it. You know how it goes.

Over the phone, I read her the poems I was learning to love. We drove to the February lakeshore and kissed among the shags of ice. Suddenly all the songs on the radio were about us.

I was 19 that year, for just a year (i): still young enough to find profundity in the pop music that had shepherded me through adolescence, and only beginning to appreciate the language poetry offered, a language almost sufficient to all that I felt.

The first poem we read that semester was Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” translated from the original German by Stephen Mitchell. The poem offers us images of the headless, limbless sculpture of its title, but also of how the ruined figure of the god of light and poetry might have appeared in its former glory.

The poem does not distinguish between what is or is not there; in its language – “his legendary head / with eyes like ripening fruit” – even the absent can be present. And, as George urged us to note, we are not only seeing the sculpture, but being seen: “for here there is no place / that does not see you. You must change your life.” (ii)

I did not understand, but I knew the poem was speaking to me. I did not know that countless poets, countless people, had read and felt that same challenge before: You must change your life. I knew only enough – at least enough – to listen.

You must change your life. Change my life how? Change it to what? What does this strange, urgent demand have to do with a damaged sculpture of Apollo? What does it have to do with me?

I did not know then. Nearly 20 years later, I still do not know. But I keep asking the questions.

After the relationship failed – of course it failed: I did become a poet, after all – I found I needed poetry all the more. I needed words that had never been said; I needed as much to hear them as to say them.

I needed someone to say what I felt in words I could not muster for myself. So when I heard Leonard Cohen sing:

I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch
And love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah (iii)

I understood, and I knew I was understood, too. I was seeing and being seen from all places.

The semester ended and I went home for the summer. In my old room, posters of Dan Marino and Tupac Shakur, photographs from my senior prom looked on instead of an archaic torso. I was shocked to find that the person to whom these things, these effects, belonged had disappeared into someone else. You must change your life.

A month earlier, she sat listening at my own poetry reading. She met my parents. She gave me a copy of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” Now it was summer and she did not call; all summer long she kept not calling.

I went to the beach. I bummed cigarettes, snuck beers and waxed philosophical. I flirted with old flames, resented them for not knowing the person I had become with her, resented them for not being her. I listened to sad songs; wrote sad, bad poems; and read everything I could – except “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.”

And there was poetry – my sanctuary, and the stone in my shoe. Suddenly, I couldn’t remember a time before it or imagine a life without it.

Like Cohen’s hallelujah, I was both broken and grateful. Like Rilke’s Apollo, there was a new, strange wholeness in what was broken. Or maybe it was simpler than that, something beyond the reach of a clever phrase and all the years between.

A life is not a story. It’s too chaotic, messy and unresolved. We form order from that chaos: I say “form” because our English words for both poetry and fiction derive from different Classical forms of “to make,” the Greek poesis and the Latin fingere, “to form or contrive.”

I did not know this then, but while I read and wrote and loved and grieved, I was forming a life. I wish I had understood that she was forming one just the same, a life as real and broken and precious as mine.

We make language out of sounds and marks, we make stories of our lives in order to understand them and to be understood. We seek the essential moments that seem bridges between there and here, wherever we may be.

You probably know all this already, your own version of it. You may remember the moment when you found yourself saying hallelujah for all the broken shards that even the luckiest life is made of. Or maybe the moment is still to come, when someone stops you cold to say, “You must change your life.” Which, whatever the story, is where the story begins again. CV

Dave Lucas is the author of “Weather” (VQR/Georgia, 2011), which received the 2012 Ohioana Book Award for Poetry. Named by Rita Dove as one of 13 “young poets to watch,” he has also received a “Discovery/The Nation Prize and a Cleveland Arts Prize. In 2018 he was named the second Poet Laureate of the State of Ohio. A co-founder of Brews + Prose at Market Garden Brewery and Cleveland Book Week, he lives in Cleveland, where he was born and raised.

(i) I’ve stolen this line from the songwriter Griffin House, who sings in “Missed My Chance”: “I was seventeen just for a year.”

(ii) Rainer Maria Rilke, “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” Trans. Stephen Mitchell.

(iii) Leonard Cohen, “Hallelujah.” Various Positions. 1984. I can’t remember if the first version I heard was his live rendition from More Best Of (1997) or Jeff Buckley’s cover, from Grace (1994).

Lead image: Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas speaking at Brews + Prose at Market Garden Brewery in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood. | Photo / Carissa Russell

Column by Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas

“I, too, dislike it.”
– Marianne Moore, “Poetry”

But you don’t hate it.

At least that’s what I hope you’ll discover as you read this column.

I don’t want to convince you that you should love poetry. I want to convince you that you already do.

If you know by heart the lyrics to your favorite song, you already love one kind of poetry. You love another whenever you laugh at a joke or groan over a bad pun. The jargon of your profession and the slang you speak with friends are poetry. So are the metaphors we use to describe this world we all are trying to understand.

For instance: We are so immersed in poetry that to hate it would be like a fish hating water.

Silly and inexact as it may be, that simile – this is like that – is a poetic gesture, a comparison that attempts to present an abstract idea in concrete terms. My metaphor might not be good poetry, but it’s still poetry.

Poetry is a name for the pleasure we take in the language we hear and speak, read and write. We savor words for their music as well as what they mean, the wonderful alchemy of their sound and sense together, even as we use them for the most mundane, practical purposes.

We find poetry in poems, of course – “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers” – but we find it elsewhere, too.

In this column, you’ll encounter traditional and nontraditional poems alike. But I also hope that the words we will share, both in poems and about poems, can welcome you to the pleasures and challenges – the poetry – of words, wherever we find them.

Let me offer an example: I also teach a college course called “Poetry for People Who Hate Poetry,” from which this column has evolved. On the first day of class we introduce ourselves: name, major, hometown, etc. But then I ask each student a strange icebreaker. What is your favorite word?

They hesitate. What an odd question. They look for the door. Just pick one, I tell them. It won’t be etched in stone; you don’t have to get it tattooed on you. So – if a bit suspiciously – they do.

“Serendipity,” they say. “Defenestrate.” “Home.” “Dream.” Their responses often divide them into two camps. Some choose a word because they “just like the way it sounds.” Others select a word that holds some personal meaning for them in addition to its “dictionary definition.”

Readers of poetry tend to divide along similar lines, as the poet and critic James Fenton has observed. There are “those who, confronted with what appears to be like a code, insist that they must crack it, and those who are happy to listen to the spell, without inquiring too closely what it might mean.”

That “spell,” as Fenton calls it, was cast on all of us long ago. It is the spell not only of poetry but of words themselves. We love the way words sound; we are bound to them by what they mean.

Poetry happens – in metaphors or jokes or in poems themselves – at that place where sound and sense blur into each other.

We may not realize that we are under the spell of poetry because poetry is made of ordinary language (if language can ever be ordinary). Some words we use to toast a wedding or to bless the dead; others we use to order a pizza.

Language is the medium of our speech and thought and being, so it is natural that we would take pleasure in it. It is also natural to take that same pleasure – not to mention its profundity – for granted.

Poetry indeed offers us pleasure, but it can offer much more than that. I believe that poetry can be a way of making meaning of our lives and of the lives of others.

We do this with words, even as words themselves remain a mystery. Stare at any word for a while, say it again and again to yourself, and it becomes a foreign language. Its meaning bleeds from it, and the word reclaims its original and utter strangeness.

“Every word was once a poem,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in 1844. “Every new relation is a new word.” Emerson is being a bit poetic himself here, if not entirely obtuse. I think he means that, just as Adam and Eve named the animals in the story of the garden, so we find ourselves always in the act of trying to name our world.

Twenty years ago, the word “bling” was just a clever nugget of slang from a half-forgotten hip-hop song of the 1980s. Now, thanks to the Cash Money Millionaires and digital media, we find it in the Oxford English Dictionary, the definitive record of the English language. I can even type “bling” into Microsoft Word without worrying about the red squiggly line warning me of a spelling error. It is a part of speech, a kind of poetry.

If indeed poetry is a name for the pleasure of language, it is also a way of trying to name the world.

Simple sounds in the air or marks on a page become profound human comedy and tragedy, the scripts for our most beautiful and awful acts. These marks and sounds can be Hamlet and the “Letter from Birmingham Jail”; they can be “Mein Kampf.”

How those marks and sounds become so much more is a process of transformation that remains miraculous to me even now, some 20 years after first falling in love with poetry. They remain my way of making sense of my world, of myself and of you – stranger, reader, friend – too.

Not all of us read poems. Not everyone needs poems. I believe we all need poetry, though, because we need language. We need to communicate, and we need just as much the pleasure and meaning it can offer to our lives.

Some people find such meaning in their faith, in logic or science, in a career or a political ideology, or some combination thereof.

I never found the meaning I needed in those places. I do find it in poetry, in the art of language itself. I find it when Walt Whitman writes “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” or when Toni Morrison says “All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.”

This is why I want to share poetry with you in whatever form we might find it. I hope you will find some of it in reading this column. I hope you will find even more in listening to the words you hear and those you speak every day.

There and here, I hope you will find a kind of poetry that you can love, or even some that you have loved all along. CV

Dave Lucas is the author of “Weather” (VQR/Georgia, 2011), which received the 2012 Ohioana Book Award for Poetry. Named by Rita Dove as one of 13 “young poets to watch,” he has also received a “Discovery/The Nation Prize and a Cleveland Arts Prize. In 2018 he was named the second Poet Laureate of the State of Ohio. A co-founder of Brews + Prose at Market Garden Brewery and Cleveland Book Week, he lives in Cleveland, where he was born and raised.

Lead image: Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas speaking at Brews + Prose at Market Garden Brewery in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood. | Photo / Carissa Russell