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Extinguishing the poet with my tears

Kyung Eun Lee / The Daily Princetonian

The last time I tripped over a rock and cut my hand, I didn’t cry. It hurt so bad I think I even laughed a little. Instead, the last time I cried was after reading a poem. Writing right now, I find it a bit absurd. But after sitting with a couple of silly words on a gloomy Wednesday afternoon, I found myself repeatedly running my eyes over Baudelaire’s “Correspondences,” forgetting each word as I read it. 

My eyes stood fixed like the subject of a photograph in long exposure; everything that passed behind and walked in front of me was blurred. Not even just in metaphor — after I put the book down, I thought about the rest of my day so as to shake off the indeterminacy of the poem, but I couldn’t remember what I had already done, where I had already been, what I needed to do, and where I needed to go. I had forgotten — forgotten routine, forgotten time. All because I had forgotten how to read.


We learn at a certain point — whether in school or through experience — that when a poet asks us to read his words, we should contextualize his language. Understanding the written word comes with the contextualization of the self behind it. What situation was the poet in? Had he just traveled to a foreign country? Was he secretly writing about his previous lover? Was he trying to recreate the first bite of a good peach? Why? Why did he write? I skim the structure of the text, taking note of the title and subtexts that hint at the poet’s ultimate truth. Searching for the etymologies of suspicious terms, the syntax of a particular arrangement, and protruding repetitions, I keep an unrelenting stare. I’m wary of every clue and warning, traces of meaning that the poet has delicately placed in between the lines. The signs direct me horizontally and vertically, and even what’s not there — in the margins and breaks — constitutes the very essence of his message.

Yet somehow, when I manage to reach the end of the last stanza, I’m left with more uncertainty and indecision than I started with. Suddenly, I’ve lost any and all sense of trust in the poet. How would I know if there were secret truths hidden in details invisible to the human eye? I want to peer into the keyhole, catch something, see something, dig out the truth stuck deep within the earth, rip out these curtains, and shatter the window. Between the rhythm, repetition, distance, and rupture, between contradicting words and never ending yet bounded lines, I struggle to grasp meaning. I’m dreaming with my eyes open; everything is perfectly muffled and blurred — there are shadows everywhere but they refer to nothing.

I sought to bring substance to those shadows — I need to put thought into words so that I know I’m not actually dreaming, but I'm indecisive and nothing sounds good enough. How does one bring reality to dreams?

I sat, confused and stunned. I didn’t even know what I was reading anymore. The words meant nothing to me, and I started to wander off into different directions. I picked up Robert Frost’s “The Figure a Poem Makes” because if anyone was going to correct me, it had to be the poet himself. Finally, someone told me what I needed to hear: the logic of poetry works such that it is “more felt than seen ahead like prophecy.” Indeed, I had been endlessly searching for the prophecy that would guide me to the truth. But a poem can’t be “worried into being.” It holds its own pace. We can’t force meaning into our interpretations; rather, we let it come to us in a later realization.

What makes poetry an art form is the spiritual, oceanic feeling it gives us beyond the ability to articulate meaning into words. It’s all about the ambiguity and uncertainty one feels in between two words, such as “round quadrangle.” What do you make of that? No one has the same understanding of the word “red,” so when it’s strung along in the line of a poem, we fill the excess with our own individuality. And this is not a symptom, but actually the nature of poetry itself. The poem is open and incomplete until the reader comes to reconcile it in her own eyes. To read — whether it’s poetry, literature, captions, or another person’s lips — is to feel. It’s not to know why, but to ask, “so what”? We might  seek to know the truth to everything, but what if there is no mysterious truth in the meaning of words? What if all there is is what’s said and done? What if there’s actually no reason why?

When I talk to my friends in the humanities about reading, we often share the same qualms about knowing things for certain. We all feel the incessant anxiety of the right interpretation or the correct reading of everything. But we also share similar experiences of feeling words, not just knowing them. The latter is where originality in thought lies. In retrospect, I don’t think there’s a single class I’ve taken where I wasn’t delighted by others’ interpretations of the readings. I love knowing what other people know — not the facts or the articulated words, but how they capture the moment of ambiguity in the concept behind those words — I love feeling what other people feel. But sometimes, I forget the beauty in oblivion and indeterminacy that is so constitutive of living and feeling.


Sometimes I grow impatient — I need someone to tell me exactly what I should know so I can extinguish the slow burn of reading poetry. Even my compulsion to know the why to things sometimes leads me to seek theoretical explanations. It’s all part of the process. We’ve all done it before, I suppose, laughing at ourselves after falling down. I remember the first time I started to laugh after crying a little bit. Perhaps it’s the same with reading. Every time a poem blinds me and I forget how to read, I remember how to feel again.

Kyung Eun Lee is a contributing writer for The Prospect at the Prince. She can be reached at or on Instagram @entertainmentkyung.

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