I suspect nearly everyone has at some time suffered through an English class where the teacher taught a section on poetry. I would also take liberty to say that they taught it by emphasizing symbolism, metaphor, analogy, simile, and hidden meanings (!) as if all “good” poetry contained all of those. One of the main poems they use in this teaching is T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock.”
I have totally lost track of the number of people who have told me “I don’t get poetry.” I asked them if they have experienced all of the above, and they invariably say yes to all of it.
At this point I always tell them that their teacher got it wrong. I tell them that the first and most important way to read a poem is to take it at face value; just read it for what it says and don’t worry about all the stuff that might be hidden within it. Most important of all is what you get from the poem. If you read Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat” and all you get is a great story about a hometown hero who fails, then for goodness sakes let it go at that.
Let me take another poem and tell you how I look at it. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnets from the Portuguese 43” begins with the line “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” Dozens, if not hundreds, of comics down through the years have gone on from that with “One, two, three…” If you have ever heard it, I suspect it’s impossible for you to read that line without at least thinking about someone counting. The next line and a half reads “I love thee to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach”. Here, I get a mental image of a little girl flinging her hands wide apart and exclaiming “I love you THIS much!” The rest of the poem is the grown-up little girl explaining her love in more adult terms ending with “and, if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death.” If there are hidden meanings, or any of that other stuff, here I don’t see them and I don’t look for them. It’s a beautiful expression of love, and I simply leave it at that.
If you have any leftover angst from the way you were taught poetry in school, I hope this has given you some relief. I always tell anyone who reads one of my poems that if they find any hidden meanings, symbolism, analogies, metaphors, or similes within my poems, the chances are very good I did not put them there. When I was being taught poetry in that manner, I suspected that a good many of the poets involved would’ve been equally surprised to find all of that “extra stuff” within their poems as well. Well, maybe not T.S. Eliot in that infamous “Love Poem”; but even there, I can’t help thinking he had many a good laugh about it.
Now, if you enjoy reading poems for what may be contained within them, don’t let me dissuade you. But if you secretly avoid reading or leaving comments about certain poems because you feel you haven’t adequately understood the “real meaning”, let me put you at ease. Sometimes, a flower is just a flower, a walk in the park is just a walk in the park, and a poem is just a poem.