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  • Writer's pictureTucker Bryant

Ambiguity's invitation

Poets (and non-poets) often feel a pressure when reading a new poem that's particularly esoteric or abstract to understand exactly what the author is trying to say, and will feel frustrated, insecure, or inadequate if they're unable to divine its "true meaning." The experience invariably leads the reader to conclude that poetry must not be “for” them.


I've always felt that this is an unhelpful way to think about poetry. I empathize with the analytical instinct; after all, it’s trained into us in school and work that our goal in reading new texts is to parse ambiguity and arrive at the single meaning that a piece of language can be agreed as conveying. If the text doesn’t do this, we consider the ambiguity to be a flaw.


The reason this very specific form of analysis that often falls short of encompassing the value poetry has to offer us is that poetry is a craft of imagination, intuition, and expansive possibility.


Because poetry is often about being open to the possibility of many answers existing in a single line, just as every poet imbues the language they write with their own unique perspective and experiences, every reader brings the same uniqueness (har har) to their analysis – meaning that no poem holds the exact same meaning in any two people’s minds, because the poem takes on meaning when it interacts with the reader’s thoughts and emotions. This is why when the reader encounters a line they don’t understand, the goal is not necessarily to simply apply their essay-analysis lens to try to decipher it; instead it should often be to listen a little bit closer to their own experience of reading it.


What do they “see” when they encounter a particular image?

What do the rhythms and sounds of the words they trace make them feel?

What personal associations to they draw between what they’re reading and what they’ve experienced?


Reading poetry in this way can feel uncomfortable and unintuitive because it forces us to relinquish the sort of control we’ve been trained to hold onto in other contexts, but it opens up an entire universe of possibilities…


…and as you’d probably expect, leaders and innovators can learn something from this. In fact, two things:


  1. Loosening our grip – The challenges we face in the corporate world are tough and complex. Reorgs, team tensions, strategic pivots, daunting projects with new responsibilities; all of these experiences forecast a huge degree of ambiguity that our first instinct may be to attempt to control in totality. Thinking like a poet in these circumstances empowers us to say “I don’t know exactly what I’m doing here or how this is going to go, but that’s okay – so I’m going to find out anyway.”

  2. Seeking new perspectives – Remember that thing about how every person brings their own lens to the poetry they read and give it meaning that’s unique to their perspective? Well, spoiler alert, that extends to the hurdles we face in the working world, too. No two people from different job functions, levels of seniority, or industry will synthesize their thoughts on our challenges and questions in the corporate world the same way. The best-equipped poet, and the best-equipped professional, is the one who frequently fortifies their own perspective with that of as many others as possible when figuring out how to tackle their latest challenge. Nobody’s forced to approach their objectives the way somebody else might, but each new perspective is kind of like a new tool in your belt (or a new pen in your… pencil case)!


The irony of this prescription is its implication that while work and poetry sometimes feel impossibly complex, they often long for the poet to step back from some of the analytical skills they’ve used to understand what they’re reading and learn how to return to the basic human instinct of trusting their intuition.


And no matter how dense and esoteric Ezra Pound might be, you don’t need and MFA to have that on your side.

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