Have you ever been changed by your imagination? Has a reading, or even a misreading, of a poem, book, film, or moment of your life stayed with you and formed you. In reading Robert Hass’ Time and Materials, one of the first poems that first arrested me was “Envy of Other People’s Poems:”
In one version of the legend the sirens couldn’t sing.
It was only a sailor’s story that they could.
So Odysseus, lashed to the mast, was harrowed
By a music that he didn’t hear—plungings of sea,
Wind-sheer, the off-shore hunger of the birds—
And the mute women gathering kelp for garden mulch,
Seeing him strain against the cordage, seeing
the awful longing in his eyes, are changed forever
On their rocky waste of island by their imagination
Of his imagination of the song they didn’t sing.
It was one of those that I instantly needed to read to my wife, knowing it touched on something that we held as a shared love. Looking back at it now, I am fascinated again how Kristen’s and my first reaction to the poem mirrored the very dynamic within it: “the mute women gathering kelp for the garden mulch, / Seeing him strain against the cordage, seeing / The awful longing in his eyes, are changed forever / On their rocky waste of island by their imagination / Of his imagination of the song they didn’t sing.” Likewise, we were mutually “changed forever” by our imagination of Hass’ imagination of their imagination of Odysseus’ imagination. I love how the rapid transition from mind to mind simulates the motion that isn’t actually present. Odysseus is still, having already strained to the limits of the ropes tying him to the mast, while the women have stopped gathering kelp to look up at him. This simulation of motion further suggests how their mutual silence can evoke the fabled siren’s song.
I feel changed by this poem, but then I return to the title and remember that my imagination of what the poem means doesn’t include it: “Envy of Other People’s Poems.” Does this mean envy of Homer in the way Virgil, Tennyson, Cavafy, and, of course, Hass, have followed or diverged from him? Is the changing power of poetry and a mutual gaze only a result of imagination and envy? Or is there something more? Can we say more about the silence between Odysseus and the women that is still creative even though (or perhaps precisely because) it is silence? Is this a circle of writer and reader where the reader expects something that the writer does not write, and yet both are changed by the (mis)reading?
Perhaps I am engaged in a misreading, but if so, then it is a misreading of a poem about misreading. Odysseus acts on his internal interpretation, not the fact that these women are mute. They in turn are changed by what they interpret as his interpretation, though they only know that he is straining against the cords and nothing more.
We need to be like Odysseus. Read poetry even if you think you are interpreting it badly. Sometimes we may feel like poetry is an indecipherable art form that should be left to English teachers and poets. Dana Gioia, points out that “poetry now belongs to a subculture. No longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, it has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group.” But it doesn’t have to be this way. Poetry was the occupation of all, from sailors telling legends about sirens to “mute women gathering kelp for garden mulch.”
What is your reading of the poem? What is your song that the poet didn’t sing?
Here’s Hass reading it at Dodge Poetry Festival.