What does it mean to understand poetry? Are there right ways and wrong ways to understand? Every poet begins by scribbling sentences on a pad of paper or typing a draft in a word document that hopefully would later be reviewed and published. In that moment of scribbling or typing he or she had a very specific feeling and understanding that they pushed out from themselves and into words. There is one way to understand poetry and that way is what the poet felt when writing their piece. However, there is another way, and that is how the reader feels. Those two things alone determine what a poem is and how it should be understood.
During our 2013 Conference on the Sowell Family Collection in Literature, Community and the Natural World, Pattiann Rogers was one of our main guests and speakers to present at the conference until a series of road blocks including a large blizzard that hit Denver, CO caused her to have to cancel her trip. The students were visibly upset. It seemed Pattiann Rogers was more than a poet to the Texas Tech Students; she was an inspiration. In their classes, the students all carefully wrote and rewrote papers over Rogers’ poetry and metaphors hoping to present at the conference their interpretation of Rogers work. They found spiritual, sexual, musical and cosmological metaphors that they all related to their own lives and their very own personal writings. These students were prepared to bravely share what they felt about Rogers writing right in front of the poet herself. However, instead of presenting it to Rogers they presented it to a crowd of students, faculty, staff and visitors that may have known nothing about Rogers and her poetry. The students molded an image in this crowd’s mind of who Rogers was and what she represented through her carefully structured sentences, her vibrant word choices and her poetic voice. Everyone, I think, would agree that even while Rogers was six hundred miles away she still was very alive in that room purely through her poetry and the understanding of it through the students.
The Friday of the conference, the night when Pattiann Rogers was due to speak about “Earth and the Sound of Poetry,” the other plenary writers — Rick Bass, Barry Lopez, John Lane, and Robert Michael Pyle — decided to do a reading of her poems in her honor. The writers and students all picked out the poem most moving to them individually and read it aloud to a full room. A few new faces had shown up for the reading and a lot of old ones too, but everyone the same breathed in these poems and exhaled their own meaning. One reading in particular can attest to that. On that Friday night, one male college student who looked like he didn’t quite belong in the middle of a poetry reading stood up at the podium with a Pattiann Rogers book in hand and bravely said to the rest of the crowd that he didn’t know who Pattiann Rogers was before he attended this conference but hearing essays about her and listening to the movement of poetry she had created encouraged him to stand up and read something that moved in him. This is, I thought, what poetry is all about.
Pattiann Rogers had moved through students during a conference she wasn’t even able to attend and has a way to let her voice be heard through hundreds of miles of wood and prairie and sky. The students have found a light inside her poetry and have let that light shine a very individual path for themselves and their understanding of the poetic world.