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Published: Friday, January 16, 2004

Read a poem and allow yourself to wonder
My view

Patrick Herron

Like 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 is, however.

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 need it?

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 brain.

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 else’s.

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 point.

“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 snow.

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 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.

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