For me, poetry is best read before bed, perhaps because the best of it makes the kind of dreamlike connections my body is preparing for, though I never see coming. And – who knows? – poetry may make my mind supple enough to dream well.
Like a vivid dream, good poetry always surprises. Fragments of life and thought add up to more than they should. Multiple readings of a favorite poem bear up like a compelling, recurring dream.
Experiencing a dream and understanding it (if the latter is possible) are two different things. The same goes for experiencing and understanding poetry. Experiencing a poem is like waking up from a dream struck at first with an inexplicable impression or feeling. I’ve been somewhere emotionally I wasn’t expecting to go. Understanding a poem, on the other hand, is like trying to reconstruct a dream’s events in order to explain its force.
I can’t really know a poem I haven’t experienced. I may be only fending off a poem by carrying on about its alliteration and assonance and allusions. After experiencing a poem, though, I might have some unacademic questions: Why do these weak fragments pulsate on the page? How do these six lines reduce me to tears? What is the poem inviting me to see about myself?
Analyzing a poem without experiencing it is like sending a rocket to the moon without ever tasting green cheese. To quote Thomas Merton out of context: “What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves?” I can take poetry courses and still live without poetry and the part of me that poetry would feed.
In a sense, something understood is something diminished; something apprehended is something locked away. No one stays happily married by solving his wife. We infixed a flag in the moon, but we haven’t solved it. Indeed, the moon may help to keep us from solving and benighting ourselves.
Poetry is like the moon. It comes and goes. It shows up in different guises. It can guide us on a journey. It can spare light in a dark time. To live without poetry is to live in a moonless world, or to sleep in an atmosphere sucked clean of dreams.