Poem as idea


In that Hillman article I linked to before, she states, “It is common to hear students talking about ‘the idea behind the poem.’ There is no idea ‘behind’ a poem, I say. The words and their phrases are what we have.” This troubles me. If there is no idea behind a poem, then what is the poem? Maybe I’m misunderstanding her use of the word “idea.” But idea, after all, is from etymologically from words meaning to see, and form and pattern. I guess I’ve just made her point. The poem is the idea, the observed/experienced captured in form and pattern. Maybe I’m misunderstanding the notion of “behind.” I guess I’m thinking about the impulse, the deep consideration, and the ambition that I think is required to be “behind” a poem. One of the things I struggle with in reading poetry is feeling the originating impulse, and following the poet’s ambition for the poem. I suspect what disturbs me sometimes is the poem in question actually has insufficient impulse, and foreshortened ambition, and too shallow a consideration. (Of course, this is what torments me in my own writing.) But how can I tell who is falling short, me, the reader, or the poet and the poem? This is my ongoing challenge, I guess: to accept the poem as idea, and stop trying to peer “behind” it, but rather explore it as I would explore any idea – questioning (argumentative as I am by nature) and rolling with the ride. (But I’ve never been one for rollercoasters.)

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