It turns out that there is a tacit agreement among poets and self-proclaimed readers and lovers of poetry that if a poem is just not making any sense to us, that we never admit it.  In fact, this agreement seems to have a number of critical clauses: if a poem is inscrutable and does not seem to make any sense, talk about language and syntax and the surprise in the imagery.  If the poem is all over the place and still does not make sense, talk about experimentation, about the musicality, and the contradictory impulses in the work.  Finally, and most importantly, if the poem keeps stumping you again and again, never admit it, but always speak of the poet's uncanny ability to challenge linearity and the very concept of meaning.  Speak about the power of the absence of meaning without mentioning things like dadaism.  And in all instances, never attempt line-by-line readings of the text.  That might prove too revealing.

I could keep riffing on this forever, complaining about the apparently new trend against the narrative and a new embrace of the image--especially the leaping image.  And I could assume the position of someone like Dobyns and say that if a poem does not communicate it has failed.  But a part of me does like the idea that sometimes poems don't want to have meaning and that somewhere out there, there are people who find pleasure in this absence of meaning.  I can't say I know these people very well, but those that I do know are actually not saying that.  What they are saying is that there is tremendous meaning in those poems that we often label as meaningless.  But this meaning is not the packaged and linear meaning that has been drilled into our heads from childhood.   But I also realize that I find no greater pleasure in that kind of verse.  I simply don't.  And I can't help sometimes feeling quite inadequate because of this.  Many of us know that feeling but won't admit it.  It is the feeling we get when we read something and think to ourselves, "I don't get any of this and I can't see why people are making a big fuss about this poet."  But we dare not say it out loud for two reasons:

The first is that we are so filled with doubt about our capacity to understand everything that if we don't get a poem we don't blame the poem but blame ourselves.  And we allow this "understanding" to stand as we stay silent and sometimes smile intelligently at what we are reading or hearing.

The second is that we fear sounding like really ordinary people who say that about poetry all the time.  if we acknowledge that poetry can sometimes be completely obscure and make no sense, we worry that all our efforts to defend our own work to those same "ordinary" people will go to nothing because we will be found out to be just like them--like these ordinary people.  Our sometimes very effectively disguised snobbery makes us stay silent, and the conspiracy continues.

Yet, the problem is that to say a poem does not make sense is sometimes too easy and it is a conclusion we arrive at after a short foray into the belly of the poem.  We know that for many of us, it has taken a life time to master or even appreciate certain poets.  A life time of reading and re-reading the same poems, trying  to work things out.  And often we do come to some understanding and feel the better for it.  To dismiss a poem as not making sense without having taken the time to really try to get it is a mistake.  But so is the assumption that because the poem is inscrutable, it means that there is something behind it that we just don't get and that we need to get.

But none of this explains fully why we persist in the business of pretending to understand when we don't or pretending to like stuff when we don't.  Perhaps on one day during Poetry Month, we should have an Amnesty day for poets and lovers of poetry to just say, "I just don't get it!" and to be punished in any way because of this.  On that day on facebook, on Harriet, in classrooms, in MFA programs, at readings, in living rooms, in bedrooms i kitchens, in cars, in trains, on cruises all over the country, instead of saying, "Man that was deep," we will say, "I have no idea what your poem is trying to say," or "I have read your poem over fifty times, and I still don't get what you are trying to say."  I believe that this Amnesty will be good for poetry.  For one thing, at east for that one day, we can all be allowed to risk looking silly by speaking with confidence about the nakedness of the emperor. We will stop looking at everyone else around us (who might have been pretending, too) and think, "What do they have that I don't?  maybe it is a cultural thing...."  Well, it is not those things. it is just this fear of looking stupid.

Happy Amnesty day when it comes.

Originally Published: April 7th, 2010

Born in Ghana in 1962, Kwame Dawes spent most of his childhood in Jamaica. As a poet, he is profoundly influenced by the rhythms and textures of the country, citing in a recent interview his “spiritual, intellectual, and emotional engagement with reggae music.” His book Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius (2007)...