Friday, April 2, 2010

Poetry Friday: Asking Questions

Imaginary Menagerie by Julie Larios 
Illustrations by Julie Paschkis

Listen to the waves
break on the shore--
half song, half roar. 
Listen to the beach 
answer back--
half cry, half laugh. 
Underneath it all 
you might hear a splash, 
you might hear a call ,
or you might hear a sigh, 
long and low. 
What does she say,
part woman, part fish? 
I wish....I wish....

I seem to have a soft spot for questions, especially questions that can be answered more than one way. To me, ambiguity - different understandings of a single object - is exciting. It's at the heart of poetry, because it's at the heart of metaphor. For me, a poem is richer if its images and its meanings are open to interpretation.

I heard a teacher once ask her students,  "What does the snow stand for?" when discussing Frost's Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. I listened to the kids (these were junior high school age)  try to come up with what they thought the teacher wanted to hear. They started guessing. Someone said, "Winter?" and the teacher said, "No...." and someone said "Things that get in the way of what we want to do?" Another student asked, "Old age?" and the teacher said, "'re getting close...." and then someone said, "Death?" and the teacher said "Yes! Death!" I was glad to hear Frost's poem reach the ears of those students - and God bless teachers who use poetry in their classrooms.  But I think the poem was done a disservice. A good case could be made for the snow's "meaning" to be any of those three, plus multiple others. The job of the teacher is not necessarily to teach the "right" meaning of the poem's images - it's to teach how poetry lends itself to our multiple interpretations, and does so with beautiful language and fresh images.

That's why I like to put questions in poems. I want a poem to go out and puzzle people, so that they need to come back to it a few times before they decide what it means to them.  I don't want it to be completely opaque and difficult - I'm not a Language poet -  but I don't want it to be completely clear. There should be some mystery about the meaning - there should be some ambiguity.

In one of my book for kids, Imaginary Menagerie, I ask readers to answer many questions for themselves; sometimes I provide half answers, or riddle answers. What does a mermaid say who is half woman, half fish? "I wish...I wish..." is the only answer. "What does she wish?" kids ask me when I read this poem at schools. "What do you think she wishes?" I ask. You would be surprised how many answers kids come up with.

Who will sing a golden song to a firebird? Who will set it free? "Would you?" I ask. And off the kids go, to imagine their courage, and to imagine what they would sing. I ask whether we believe a centaur can be half man, half horse. "The answer is no. And yes, of course."  The kids ask, "How can the answer be yes and no?" And I answer with a question, "How can the centaur be half man, half horse?" So we go around in circles!   A cockatrice who is half snake, half rooster, asks if he should crow or hiss. The kids aren't sure, but they all have an opinion. The desert sand asks, "How Why? Where?" and the kids want to know "How what? Where what?" But the poem goes on to say, "No one can answer the sand." The poem about the gargoyles asks, "How can a beast speak with a stone tongue, with a stone throat?" There isn't just one answer - "And that's the beauty of poetry, isn't it?" I ask.

The Poetry Friday round-up is being hosted today over at Book Aunt. Check out what people are sharing - and wow, they're sharing a lot, because it's APRIL - it's National Poetry Month!! Go celebrate!


  1. Great post, Julie!

    "Answers" are limited only by imagination.

    Laura Evans
    all things poetry

  2. This is me, too. I love questions so much I can't stop posing more and more of them. :)

    But you're right, poetry is the perfect vehicle for paradox and and mystery, and that doesn't mean it's unclear or wishy-washy. It's trying to hold more, not less.

    I think the well-asked question is what makes a poem reverberate long after you've finished reading it, whether or not the poet explicitly puts a question mark on the page.

  3. Sad story about Frost's poem. I hate it when teachers' questions are really only a guessing game of "What's the answer I'm looking for..." I try my hardest to never ask those kinds of questions, or to alert my students when I am. Same thing when I'm talking about themes. I try to never say "what is the theme of this story?" Instead I ask "what is one possible theme of this story?" Gotta keep all the options open and all the brains thinking!

  4. Sadly we teach students of all ages to "find answers" when sometimes living with the question is more than enough.