Poetic Meaning and Poetic Experiences

By | March 13, 2019

Guest post by Nate Mickelson

I’ve had the good fortune to be talking about my new book City Poems and American Urban Crisis a fair amount over the past few months. Whether with students or colleagues, I’ve tried to put across two core arguments: 1) poetry about cities can function as a tool of analysis and action and 2) poetry brings what progressive planner Leonie Sandercock calls “community knowledge” into view so it can be used to shape decisions about city environments and policies. I’m committed to these arguments because they move (or try to move) poetry from the fringe of academic and aesthetic discourse into the thick of on-the-ground decision-making that affects people’s everyday lives.

US Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith argues a similar point in a recent New York Times essay. Advocating the political power of poetic critique and reflection, Smith proposes that poetry offers us a “means of owning up to the complexity of our problems, of accepting the likelihood that even we the righteous might be implicated by or complicit in some facet of the very wrongs we decry.” She describes how contemporary poets involve readers in experiences of embodiment and empathy in order to open them up to new possibilities of community and social action.

Thinking about Smith’s essay has helped me realize that my arguments about poetry’s political efficacy rest on a more fundamental claim about how poetry works. Specifically, they depend on the idea that the experiences we have as we read poems—and the ways those experiences affect our perspectives and subsequent experiences—matter more than what a particular poem means. To put it another way (and to borrow from the late critic Angus Fletcher): Poems are occasions for experience rather than containers of meaning.

While it is common sense to say that we experience something when we read a poem, interpreting a poem’s meaningfulness in terms of experience rather than in terms of sense and reference runs counter to important trajectories in literary studies. For example, Gwendolyn Brooks’s famous poem “We Real Cool” conveys the idea that skipping school can lead to dire consequences and the related idea that the overt racism of segregated 1960s Chicago placed unreasonable pressure on young black men’s lives. These meanings are important, but making meaning the only thing that matters about the poem turns it into a specialized, isolated aesthetic object.

Reading Brooks’s poem (or listening to her read it!) generates more complex and personal experiences than any meaning or set of meanings can convey. Reading it now I feel the guilty rush of sneaking out of my bedroom late at night when I was 15 and the guilty anger associated with social and racial injustice. The poem makes me wonder how Brooks would respond to Claudia Rankine’s remarkable Citizen: An American Lyric and Terrence Hayes’s difficult American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. My experiences with Brooks’s poem, in turn, influence how I interact with my students and colleagues at Guttman Community College in midtown Manhattan; how I walk around my neighborhood; and how I think about city issues like Amazon’s decision to cancel its Long Island City expansion or Mayor Bill de Blasio’s lagging efforts to improve outcomes for students in New York City public schools.

As Tracy K. Smith proposes, the best contemporary poetry reminds us we are members of overlapping communities with responsibilities to one another. This reminder is political. City poems like Brooks’s “We Real Cool” catalyze political engagement by involving readers in experiences. We stand with Brooks’s truant pool players as we read, hearing the ambient noise of the Golden Shovel and feeling (or imagining we feel) the pressures of teenage life in segregated Chicago. Maybe Brooks’s protagonists remind us of ourselves, our friends, or members of our families or communities. Maybe they convince us we bear responsibility for the possibility they will “die soon.” In any case, the pool players linger with us long after we have decided what the poem means. And while we have to know some of what the poem might mean in order to have these experiences, we miss out on a great deal if we stop at meaning.

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City Poems and American Urban Crisis

Nate Mickelson is Assistant Professor of English and City Seminar Coordinator at Stella and Charles Guttman Community College, City University of New York, USA. His book City Poems and American Urban Crisis: 1945 to the Present is now available from Bloomsbury.

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