Prose tends to be denotative, without implication or ambiguity. Poetry is allusive, suggestive, symbolic and multivalent.
The act of reading literal prose non-fiction works is one-way. The information contained in the prose work is to be taken in, as written. The reader’s mind, with regard to the work, is a tabula rasa, a blank slate, waiting to be written upon. Because non-fiction prose is to be taken literally, there is no question of symbolism or metaphor. All that needs to be known of the author’s intention in writing the work should be clearly stated, as well any inferences from, or implications for, life outside the work.
With prose fiction and poetry, on the other hand, the situation is quite other. These are creative works, made on the understanding that what the reader finds beneath the surface, what is suggested or implied, has been deliberately put there by the author. There is a complementary aspect to this in that the more the reader brings to the experience, the deeper will the work appear; it is a question of reading into what is written. As two thousand years of interpretation of the Bible have shown, there is no limit to what can be found in such works, no way of knowing how much was deliberately put there and how much has been “read into” it by succeeding generations. This is the genius of human creativity. “You feel him to be a poet, inasmuch as for a time he has made you one – an active creative being”, says Coleridge. Thus there is a sense in which the reader is creating the poem, or at least re-creating it, in terms of his opinions, assumptions, level of understanding, general education, and orientation in life. The final criterion of the validity of what one “finds” in such a work is its usefulness for life.
So the encounter with creative writing, poetry in particular, is synergistic, reciprocal. The question of what the poet intended is not to be answered in the same unequivocal manner as the question “What is two plus two?”. We can get some insight into the poet’s intention by considering the spirit of the age in which he lived, the general pattern of the poet’s whole body of work, her non-poetical works, and biography. But having identified the poet’s intention doesn’t provide us with the “meaning” of the poem; we have still to identify its significance for us, irrespective of what the poet is saying, for poetry is not information but experience; we don’t try merely to “understand” what the poet is saying, we expect to realize some truth about the nature of life. It is not a question of fact but of orientation; not of what we can learn, but of who we can be. In the last analysis poetry is an encounter with ourselves, the revelation of our own minds – surely a thing useful to know.
Poetry, like philosophy, exists in order to enable us to experience thought. Yet poetry is distinguished from philosophy, obviously, by the use of verse and rhyme and, in addition, by the tendency to use metaphor, image and symbol, drawn from the human experience of the natural world and of the human artifact. (In this way poetry reminds us that we are implicated in the whole of creation, do not stand outside it, and are intimately connected with, and related to, all that we see and experience outside our minds, including our own bodies.) Moreover, the use of concrete images in poetry is an aspect of its suggestive nature for an image is fraught with connotation while the abstract concept can, and should be, reduced to its denotative aspect. Thus the poem is, by nature, ambiguous and multivalent. This is intentional because poetry requires us to deliberate, to contemplate and meditate on what is being read.
When poets say that the object of their work is to render the beautiful, they do not mean merely a quality but an intense effect, a participation, an influence upon the mood, the state of mind, of the listener or reader. To experience a poem is to be changed, to be rapt away to another, higher realm, one to which we are entitled as a way to approach to heaven. To achieve this result, poets are advised neither to describe nor to teach for these are left-brained activities while poetry is right-brained, a more holistic way of thinking inasmuch as it presents the sensual and emotional aspects of the human experience, in addition to ideas. Poetry, more than any other verbal-mental activity, draws upon the full resources of mind, i.e., all of the ways in which we can be aware.
It is a truism that poetry has fallen on hard times. We are at the opposite pole from the period when poetry was revelation of universal truth and the poet its prophet. As a thoroughly modern, practical and down-to-earth people, we are not even called upon to consider the universal as it applies to our daily lives; it is entirely too speculative. In fact, it is not uncommon to hear that there is no order to life, that it is the result of a series of random accidents without meaning.
The juxtaposition of these two observations, the desuetude of poetry and the notion that life is meaningless can, if taken from the point of view of poetic tradition, be seen to be a situation of cause and effect. The failure to find meaning in life is the failure of poetry. For characteristic of poetry is its concern with value, with meaning. Typically this meaning is of universal harmony, of order, i.e. cosmos. Poetry has ever concerned itself with revealing this cosmos or, when identifying human failings, showing how we become disordered.
Poetry set to music becomes song, the singing of which lightens the burden of being, raises one’s spirits, an experience which, like romantic love, is nowadays considered to be impractical and unrealistic and, therefore, of little value. But the attitude, the mood, which such experience brings into life, can positively affect other aspects of living, making them easier to bear – surely a constructive use of spiritual experience. Practitioners of such disciplines as yoga and meditation aver that such a lightened attitude is a reality to which we can aspire and can achieve, and that it is our birthright to enjoy such experience.
The arts of poetry, song, yoga and meditation, being non-material, spiritual, are the reason religion has so often inveighed against the human capacity for materialistic orientation to life; religion counsels that these spiritual activities bring a more effective, joyous, attitude to bear on the living of life. And it is in the words of the poets that the deepest religious feelings of mankind survive.
When attempting to learn a manual skill we make mistakes. We reflect on the way we made our attempt, see the error and endeavor to correct it. Poetry exists to enable us to reflect on the way we live our lives overall, and on the meaning and purpose of life itself, with the expectation that, by means of such reflection, we can improve the quality of our experience and make the living of our lives more satisfactory, however we define satisfaction.
The Greek tragedies were written in verse. They were studies in the effect of character on events. The flawed character could undermine institutions, overthrow custom and render null tradition. It was in these that tragedy consisted. Epic poetry is an account of historical events and, like tragedy, exists for the purpose of reflection. We are to criticize the characters, their motives and their actions, and hold them to our own standards. Another response to epic poetry is to regard it as an account of heroism and to draw inspiration from it, to regard the heroes’ behavior as exemplary, models to be emulated.
If ever the quality of human behavior is to improve, we must learn to appraise our own behavior critically with a view to renovation. Poetry is a significant source for examples of this critical analysis, giving, as it does, living images of the method. It is in this way that poetry becomes an experience in one’s life.
The reading we do today is, most often, for the purpose of acquiring information; the writing is denotative. Poetry, on the other hand, is intended to be interpreted, penetrated; the language is used connotatively, permitting any and all associations brought to mind by the words. We can rely on the poet to have intended as many associations as we are likely or able to experience. Thus the question is not what the poet intended but what we make of the poem; what it says to us, and why. For the poem is meant for our use in understanding life or in coping with our own individual ones.