many of you, I do not believe I understand poetry
exactly. After encountering thousands of poems in my
life, I am fairly certain I don’t quite fully get this
poetry business. I do have my own rough idea of what it
Some of you don’t think you quite get poetry, but you
do. You already understand it, perhaps in your own way,
but you probably already have a good idea.
Have you ever had a teacher who professed (with the
best of intentions, of course) that your understanding
of a poem was wrong?
Even the so-called best readings of any poem are
hopelessly incomplete. No one really ever knows.
So what exactly is the point of reading this
confusing word-stuff called poetry? Why bother to read a
poem if you can never get it exactly right? Why do you
I’m the first person to tell you that you don’t need
poetry, that it’s pointless. You don’t need poetry.
Therefore poetry is pointless; it’s unnecessary. There.
I said it.
Maybe you’re practical, so pointlessness is strictly
out for you.
Many of us go to the gym or go running. Why not
exercise something less physical but just as important?
Consider poetry to be exercise for the heart and
Just as exercise helps people physically move, poetry
pushes the boundaries of everyone’s ability to
understand, to think.
You may have to answer questions when reading poetry.
But they’re your questions. And there may be no correct
answers. Your answers may just be as right as anyone
Many of you are familiar with the opening stanza of
William Blake’s poem “The Tyger”:
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
C’mon pal. Do tigers actually burn? Are you kidding
me? What are “forests of the night”? What is an
“immortal hand or eye”? What is a “fearful symmetry”?
Start reading the poem by making some guesses. Don’t
worry about being correct — being correct is beside the
“Burning bright”? Well, a tiger can be bright orange.
Yes, OK. Sounds good to me. Maybe the tiger’s soul or
heart is burning? We’ve heard of a burning heart before?
As if it’s full of vigor, full of life, full of will.
Yeah, hey, that sounds pretty good.
Let’s see, then. “Forests of the night”? Here’s this
tiger running around at night. It’s pretty bright and
stands out in the darkness, maybe? The tiger is somehow
a yin to night’s yang perhaps. But wait — a tiger can be
pretty dangerous animal, can’t it? Here’s the beautiful
living creature with its burning soul supposedly
different from the danger of the night, but then it’s
dangerous, too. What sort of God creates such a
dangerous but beautiful creature?
Hmm, let’s see, what’s next? The poem asks, “What
immortal hand or eye” . . . immortal? What’s immortal?
Oh, God. Right. Hey, we’re getting the hang of this.
Like exercise, reading a poem can be painful at
times. No pain, no gain. But there’s a literary
equivalent of the runner’s high tucked away, that moment
of everything sort of just falling together. Snowflakes
collect together at rest on the ground and we call it
And that’s just it. The best poems come together for
us like snowflakes into a blanket of snow.
How can snow be so cold and so beautiful?
Never mind the correct answer.
Poems have questions we can never answer, yet poems
somehow manage to provide us with understanding, an
understanding that has no further explanation.
Call it a spiritual revelation.
Some call it wonder.
When we wonder, we cannot explain our wonder exactly.
Wonder allows us to somehow feel as if we have been able
to tie together fragments of the struggles of daily
living into something awe-inspiring.
Snow. A tiger.
Wonder feels like an embrace of things that cannot be
embraced with a pair of arms. The invisible weightless
arms of wonder cannot be improved by lifting weights.
But they can be exercised by reading poetry.
Wonder has nothing to do with being correct or
incorrect. You already know what wonder feels like.
Read a poem today and exercise your wonder. Wonder.
At a beautiful song. At far away constellations in the
darkest night. At the person you love breathing next to
you. At how life can give us this song, these stars,
that breath, and all of it fleeting, momentary. It just
might be pointless, but then …
This is the wonder, the tiger burning bright in the
forests of the night.
Read a poem and wonder.
Patrick Herron is Carrboro’s poet laureate; you
may find some of his poetry at www.proximate.org/works.htm.
Come hear him read his poetry, along with Duke’s Joe
Donahue, at Sizl Gallery in Carrboro on Thursday at 8
p.m. Admission is free.