Taking Things Literally

With the AP English exam only a week away, we have really been cracking down on the poetry in class. You may think you know where this is going (the classic “poetry sucks and I don’t get it” rant), but you’d be wrong. I actually really like poetry. I enjoy the process of figuring out what the poem means to me, but that is exactly what causes me problems. I still believe that poetry and poems are supposed to be left for the reader’s own interpretation so a reader can connect to it on a personal level. Apparently for educational purposes, I’m completely wrong. 


I realize that the poet had a specific meaning in mind when they wrote the poem, but I have a hard time believing that they’d shun me if I told them I thought it was about something I could really relate to. To me, poetry is an art form that is perfect for an active imagination to take something and go off in crazy directions with. 


I have a specific poem in mind that has really made me think about this. It’s “The Mad Scene” by James Merrill. I have spent quite a lot of time arguing with the boyfriend about its meaning, and of course we haven’t been able to truly agree. The boyfriend thinks I take things too literally in my interpretations of poems; I clearly disagree. I’ve really developed my opinions about it, and I’ve even attempted to google search for any analysis of the poem (I found nothing) to look for other opinions. 


This is the poem by James Merrill:

Again last night I dreamed the dream called Laundry.
In it, the sheets and towels of a life we were going to share,   
The milk-stiff bibs, the shroud, each rag to be ever   
Trampled or soiled, bled on or groped for blindly,   
Came swooning out of an enormous willow hamper   
Onto moon-marbly boards. We had just met. I watched   
From outer darkness. I had dressed myself in clothes   
Of a new fiber that never stains or wrinkles, never   
Wears thin. The opera house sparkled with tiers   
And tiers of eyes, like mine enlarged by belladonna,   
Trained inward. There I saw the cloud-clot, gust by gust,   
Form, and the lightning bite, and the roan mane unloosen.   
Fingers were running in panic over the flute’s nine gates.   
Why did I flinch? I loved you. And in the downpour laughed   
To have us wrung white, gnarled together, one   
Topmost mordent of wisteria,
As the lean tree burst into grief.

I’d like to hear your opinions on this poem. Anything to help me get a different perspective in order to further develop my own views on it. According to my personal assessment of it, I find it to be a really great poem, but that could easily just be my own interpretation making it so. 


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