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I often think of a poem as a puzzle that tests a reader’s intuition, because the pieces don’t often fit together in a logical way. For a poem to truly work, it needs to lead the reader beyond its words and into the realm of emotion and imagination. As William Wordsworth once wrote, poetry is “the spontaneous overflow of feelings.”

Logic, so important to piecing together the pieces of an actual puzzle, is of little value in truly understanding a poem. Logic plays a part, of course: it’s a thread that holds line and stanza together, though often invisible or seeming so. For instance, when the Surrealists developed “automatic writing” in the early twentieth century, the underlying logic of the poem was its flood of images. Here is a sample from French poet Andre Breton’s “Hotel of Flashes”:

The philosophical butterfly
alights on the rosy star
and that makes a window in hell.

The logic of this poem, as it were, is to entirely transcend logic.

Regardless of the poem or poetry movement, the object is never specifically logic. Robert Frost put it this way, “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.”

So this often makes a poem much more difficult to understand than prose, used primarily to tell a story. Certainly, a poem can be written to relate story, but it must also rise above its storyline; way above. Think about how Dylan Thomas described his youth in “Fern Hill”:

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes.

A story, yes, but the poem is much, much more: A beautiful puzzle of images that each reader can put together in his or her own way, to better frame that individual’s own story, insights and sentiments; or, as French artist Georges Braque put it, “Reality only reveals itself when it is illuminated by a ray of poetry.”


Joseph Murphy is a poetry editor at Halfway Down the Stairs.

© 2014, Joseph Murphy

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