To understand poetry, you must first understand the difference between left and right-brained thinking.
The left side of the brain processes information and experience in a logical, step-by-step approach. For example, if you want to balance your check book, you carefully follow certain steps: you first write down amounts deposited; next, amounts spent; then subtract the amounts spent from the amounts deposited; and finally compare what’s left with what your bank statement says should be left. As long as the two figures match, your work is done. This type of linear thinking is left-brained thinking. There is no room for creative interpretation or multiple correct answers. There is right and wrong, and no in-between.
Except for literature, language is mostly processed by the left brain. The purest example of this is scientific language. For example, “H2O” means two atoms of hydrogen combined with 1 atom of oxygen. There is no room for varying interpretations when language is used this way. Language used in sentences to convey directions and facts are almost equally precise. If you tell your child as you drop her off at school: “Meet me right here at 3:00 this afternoon,” your words have one meaning only. There is no room nor need for interpretation.
Left-brained thinking has its merits, and is an often-indispensable way of processing information. It has its draw-backs, though , one of which is that it is a slow process. If one is attempting to throw a football for a touchdown or to merge onto a busy freeway, there is no time for a methodical, mathematical analysis of the steps needed to accomplish the goal. One must be able to look at the situation and instinctively, almost instantly, arrive at the solution. This is right-brained thinking. We all think this way many times every day, although we would be hard-pressed to explain the process. This is the process we use for drawing, , dancing, skiing, and all other activities that are sensual, spatial, and holistic. With this kind of thinking, we cannot present clear, discrete steps for how we arrived at the solution; instead, the solution presents itself to us immediately, telling our bodies how to move or our minds how the song should go.
So now to our actual subject: poetry. Poetry is a kind of language that makes use of right-brained thinking and experience.
There is no need for interpretation when you read the statement “ You have one hour to complete this test.” However, when we read the lyrics by Joni Mitchell from her song “Woodstock,” “we are stardust, we are golden, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden,” then there is not only room for creative interpretation, but there is need for it.
What the heck did Joni mean? Are we literally stardust? As it turns out, there may be some scientific evidence for this, but this need not be true to communicate what Joni wants to tell us. To say that we humans are “stardust” and “golden” is to communicate the Romantic (and hippie ) view that people are exceedingly precious and to be regarded with wonder. To say that we must “get ourselves back to the Garden” is to take the view that living in a natural setting may return us to the state of innocence we supposedly lost after “The Fall” (a story described in the book of Genesis in the Bible, when humans were driven from the Garden of Eden into the inhospitable world outside that utopia.)
Or so my interpretation of Mitchell’s lyrics go. For that is one of the most important characteristics about poetry: language used this way not only allows for individual interpretation, but requires it.
Why, you ask, would anyone choose to language in such a difficult, ambiguous way? Why not just say what you have to say in clear, easy-to-understand, “black and white” left-brained prose?
One reason is efficiency. Another is pleasure and beauty.
When the poet Robert Burns writes in his poem “A Red, Red Rose” “O my Luve’s like a red, red rose,/That’s newly sprung in June,” certain of his words cause little mental images to take shape in our minds, most importantly, those of a red rose and of whatever we envision as a June day. We have to go back and look at all the words carefully to figure out what Burn’s speaker is saying about the rose and the day in June, but, for many of us, those two “pictures” are given instantly and effortlessly.
When we go back to examine all the words and try to figure out exactly what Burns is trying to convey, we collide with the word “Luve’s.” Some will know immediately, while others must do some research to find, this is a Scottish version of “Love,” but, even after that is realized, we still have some thinking to do. “Love” can be interpreted in various ways, meaning anything from an emotion to a particular person. We will have to look at the word in the context of the line of poetry, and sometimes within the context of the poem as a whole, to figure out how the poet is using the word in this instance.
It is my interpretation that in this line from “A Red, Red Rose,” “Luve” means a person, the speaker’s beloved. Cast in that light, the line of poetry means that the speaker is saying his love is like a red rose that has newly bloomed on a summer’s day. By describing his sweetheart in that way, the speaker in the poem is presenting us with a mental picture, one granted to us instantly and effortlessly by our right brain. We know, by his comparing the girl to a red rose, that she is beautiful, fragrant, colorful, and fragile. We also know that, outside of the poem, her beauty cannot be eternal: girls bloom in their youth, but wither in age, just as does a rose. Still, her beauty, like that of the rose, is something so lovely that it deserves to be immortalized in verse. All the left-brained, rational words one could use to compare a rose to a beautiful girl could not approach the mental image painted instantly by our right brain.
In addition to the instantaneous mental images granted in poetry, there is the sound of poetry. Much poetry has as much in common with music as it does with words. Humans seem to innately love music and to find emotion communicated directly through music, although, again, we might have difficulty explaining why this is so. So, the lines “O my Luve’s like a red, red rose/That’s newly sprung in June: O my Luve’s like the melodie That’s sweetely played in tune” not only present us with the pleasure of vivid mental images, but lull us with the music of rhythm and rhyme.
The left brain may sneer and say to us: “Oh, what a muddled bunch of nonsense,” but, very likely, the right brain will be in rapture and feel pity for the left brain that cannot have its joyful, immediate experience