When the poet Maya Angelou died, I read Still I Rise to the Navigator. It was hard to get through the poem without crying because it so beautifully and evocatively written.
My father used to read poetry, and I have vivid memories of his reading Poe’s The Raven (“quoth the raven ‘nevermore!'”) and Longfellow’s Paul Revere’s Ride.
I believe poetry is an amazing art form, taking tools designed for basic communication and turning them in vivid emotions and imagery, sharing so much more than “look out for the rampaging cave bear” and “there are really tasty aurochs in the valley across the river.”
Like all art, the meaning of a poem is deeply related to the perspective of the reader. Yes, there might be an intended meaning from the artist, but there is also that which the reader brings with them.
One person can take a message away from poetry that is completely different from the message received by someone else. Even the passage of time can change the meaning of a poem, adding layers through the lens of one’s own experiences.
In his TED Talk “Why People Need Poetry,” poetry critic Stephen Burt explains that, except in the circumstances where you can actually ask the poet about the meaning of their work, all we can do is guess what poems mean and take what we need.
Even interpreting a poem differently than what the author intended is OK because it does rely so much on the personal element.
The social persona, the outside faces we develop and share with others is like poetry, subject to interpretation and our perspective.
We can read them the way they are intended or get them wrong.
They are poems my son feels that he cannot understand. He told me the other day one of his friends was sitting alone at a lunch table and he thought about sitting with her to keep her company, but “she looked like she was OK.”
It was an opportunity for me to tell him to follow his instincts in interpreting others’ social persona because, like interpreting poetry, the more experience he gets the more he will be able to correctly interpret what he is seeing in others, what is on top and all the vivid layers underneath.
This is my current favorite poem:
By Max Ehrmann
Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be critical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be careful. Strive to be happy.