A Poetry Fairy Tale


nce upon a time, there was a Young Intellectual Poet who lived with his friends in a beautiful tower. He loved poems, and read often. One day, he read a Great Poem that imparted to him a deep sense of mystery. Assuming the poem itself must actually be a mystery, he set out to solve the poem. He researched and read, and came up with many theories. His writings on the poem and its meaning were very poetic. People liked what he said, and decided that he understood the poem very well, because they were dazzled by his writing, thinking, and theories.

Heartened, the Young Intellectual Poet began to write poems of his own. Thinking that great poems must necessarily be mysteries to be solved, he began to omit certain parts of his writing and obfuscate others. His poems became cryptograms, rebuses, and riddles. Only he and his friends held the keys to unlock the poems. They also wrote many papers about his poems and other enigmatic poems (for now such was the fashion), again using poetic language and intricate theories.

The people in the village loved the Great Poem that originally inspired the Young Intellectual Poet, because it imparted a sense of mystery to them as well. The new poems coming out of the tower, by contrast, simply confused them. But because it was said that the Young Intellectual Poet was a great artist, they assumed the fault must be with themselves. Gradually, the villagers lost interest in poetry, deciding they were not smart enough for it–except for the few that enjoyed solving riddles. They went off to the tower to study.

Down in the village there also lived a Young Layman Poet. Being a layman, and far from the tower, he had no access to the Young Intellectual Poet’s papers. One day, the Young Layman Poet happened across the Great Poem. It imparted to him a deep sense of mystery. Realizing that he did not understand the poem, but unaware that someone else had already “explained” the poem, the Young Layman Poet set out to understand, “why he did not understand the poem.” He began to uncover many interesting devices, and to explain the effect they had upon him. He unveiled the mechanics of these devices and began to explain for himself the burning question: “Why is this poem so good?”

The Young Layman Poet decided that the many wonderful elements of the poem converged so beautifully and well that the author must not have been consciously employing all of these devices, but rather that the author was inspired. The Young Layman Poet set out to write poems that were equally inspired, focusing on strong imagery, interesting language, and a kind of poetic strangeness he learned from reading great poems. The people of the village enjoyed his poems, because they imparted the same unique and powerful sensibilities to each of them every time. Sometimes the sensibilities were much more complex, even indescribably so, than simply “mystery”–yet the effect of the poem was universal, and meaningful to the villagers.

Also in the village, there lived a Young Simplistic Poet. Seeing the success of the Young Layman Poet, Simplistic spotted his opportunity. He began writing very ordinary poems in prosaic language with obvious meanings. He resorted to overused sentimentality to make his work seem impactful or sincere. Some people in the village liked this, because they did not have to work very hard to understand his poems.

One day, hearing that the villagers had elected the Young Layman Poet to a position of great poetic esteem, the Young Intellectual Poet became angry. He and his friends in the tower (for now they were many) set out to discredit the Young Layman Poet. They compared the Young Layman Poet to the Young Simplistic Poet, arguing that any poetry that appeals to a broad audience can not be meaningful art. The people of the village became confused: should they trust their own sensibilities, that told them the Young Layman Poet’s poems were moving and meaningful to them, or should they trust the many friends of the Young Intellectual Poet, who gave many smart-sounding explanations for why their friend’s poems were superior?

The author of the Great Poem, known as Old Great Poet, happened to be passing through the village one day. He heard about the conflict between the young poets, and noticed the confusion of the villagers. The people of the village begged Old Great Poet to help them finally settle the dispute: which of these poets was the greatest? Great Poet assembled the three young poets, and read them his Great Poem. Then he asked each one of them if they understood the poem.

The Young Simplistic Poet said, “Yes, of course–it is all about feelings.”

The Young Intellectual Poet produced volumes of writing, wherein he explained the complete history of poetry, the place of this poem in history, and built elaborate theories around the symbolic, literal, and abstract meaning of the poem.

Finally, the Young Layman Poet simply turned to Old Great Poet and said, “I do not understand the poem.”

Old Great Poet nodded wisely, smiled, and said, “That is correct. A poem is not meant to be understood. It is meant to be experienced. He among you who knows this simple truth is the greatest poet.”

The villagers cheered, and paraded the Young Layman Poet through town on their shoulders. The Young Intellectual Poet returned, with his friends, to the beautiful tower, where they continued to write and decode cryptic poems. The Young Simplistic Poet went on to make his fortune writing greeting cards. And the villagers lived happily ever after, enjoying poetry for the rest of their days.