Reading Poetry and the Intimate Universal


The practice of reading poetry is very practical. It accepts the responsibility each of us bears to unclog our minds. Our minds participate in the fluidity of being. Certain understandings open them to the many senses of being —- in Desmond’s case, determinate, equivocal, dialectical, and agapeic. Short poms are highly condensed maps to this fullness.

Here the poet begins in the determinate world of nature. Lightning is a given in our objective world, but one fraught with irreducible cultural possibility —- its equivocity. Beyond the usual sense, there are dialectical narratives attached to the phenomenon. Take the moment before death. Example, just before the Good Thief died alongside Jesus.

Secular readers as readers know how to play along with this dialectical sense. Suspension of disbelief is part of the toolkit.

Heaney’s layering of the senses of being crosses the line from dialectic to agapeic interpretation. His metaphors of fleshly identity take us deep into our selving process as readers. We identify in the excruciating pain of crucifixion. The final line opens the sacred sense of the biblical story. If the reader has followed the narrative through the four-fold senses of being, she can imagine being addressed with these marvelous words.

The poem makes this experience of opening to the self beyond ourself possible. The sense of fluidity in the structure points to a primordial structure in which the self engages reflexively with its other beyond itself. It takes practice to fully experience the selving process intrinsic to understanding the poem. Those who read a lot of poetry mindfully have a powerful connection to this multidimensional cognitive activity.

This text involves us in exploring a specifically sacred story but the pattern is generic to the short poem. As we will see, this narrative appears to be both universal culturally and intimate personally.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at and other sites.

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