The Art of Deciphering Poetry

“The history of melancholia includes all of us” is a line from one of Charles Bukowski’s poems. What’s so striking about this line, is the sheer brilliance of the usage of words, that hits you hard. This line stays with you. Why? Because you can relate to it. Poetry is like that, it stays, it survives for generations, and maybe eternity. A poem belongs to the reader as much as it belongs to the poet, it forms a spectrum of experience.

I have always dwelled in confusion, the idea of feeling a poem, or to decipher it till I crack the code, ­ the crux of the poem. Some poems are to be felt, some to be deciphered. Everyone has encountered some kind of melancholia in their lives, and what better way to put it than how Bukowski puts it ­ “the history of melancholia includes all of us”. I felt this line, and also the poem, and there was no need for me to decipher it, to understand the true intent. It is felt instantly, and leaves a mark on you, like a bulls-eye.

But there are poems that need deciphering, and deciphering is an art, just like writing poetry. You try to put yourself in the poet’s shoes, and read the poem as it was written, word for word, line by line. The success of deciphering a poem not only depends on how much you know the background of the poet, but also how much you know yourself. There is a high chance that while deciphering, you might insinuate your thoughts into the poem, and thus it becomes more of your reflection. But isn’t that the beauty of poetry, that it accepts you, and demands you, and becomes you. 

How else will you like a poem, unless you have experienced what the poem is trying to communicate. There are poems that I find hard to decipher completely, but the attempt continues. I ponder upon them for days, for months, for years. They amaze me, they haunt me. The beauty is in the hunt, to understand the poem, the poet. A poem is just like a mathematical equation, hard to understand when someone else has derived it.

Consider the poem “Kitchen Song” by Laura Kasischke. 

This is one of the poems that I revisit again and again, and derive multiple interpretations. This poem according to me, portrays loss. “Kitchen Song” is a recipe of a stream of consciousness pertaining to loss, death. The feeling of the poem can be derived just through the flow of words, the intelligent way in which Kasischke forms a unique structure. You can feel the loss even before you can understand the poem. But this poem can’t be left at feeling. The deciphering lies in the exact understanding of the thought process, Kasischke’s stream of consciousness.

How can we understand the depth of this poem? How can we reflect upon Kasischke’s thoughts when she wrote the poem? Do we need to know her background, her history? Can all of this be derived from just one poem? Or do you need to read her other poems, to understand her psyche?

Deciphering a poem draw such pleasures, where you get a chance to be in someone else’s shoes and still be yourself. You are the psychoanalyst of the poem, and it is fun to play that role.

Would you like to decipher one?

– Siddhesh Wagle


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