Tear It Down
by Jack Gilbert
We find out the heart only by dismantling what
the heart knows. By redefining the morning,
we find a morning that comes just after darkness.
We can break through marriage into marriage.
By insisting on love we spoil it, get beyond
affection and wade mouth-deep into love.
We must unlearn the constellations to see the stars.
But going back toward childhood will not help.
The village is not better than Pittsburgh.
Only Pittsburgh is more than Pittsburgh.
Rome is better than Rome in the same way the sound
of raccoon tongues licking the inside walls
of the garbage tub is more than the stir
of them in the muck of the garbage. Love is not
enough. We die and are put into the earth forever.
We should insist while there is still time. We must
eat through the wildness of her sweet body already
in our bed to reach the body within the body.
You know that feeling when you say a word over and over again, and all of a sudden it’s no longer English? It becomes an alien word that’s void of all previous meaning. This is actually called semantic satiation — your brain becomes so overwhelmed by words that it has to digest and start over.
With that phenomena in mind, I think it also roughly covers what reading poetry feels like. I’ve heard so many people say that they don’t like poetry. Poems can be intimidating when you can’t translate the meaning, can’t relate to it or find it difficult to read (see: e.e. cumming’s “falling leaf”).
When I read “Tear It Down” by Jack Gilbert, it felt like the perfect poem to share. It’s the type that’s easy on the eyes, with sentences and punctuation (I think that’s a real poetry standard).
If anything gives you pause, I’d bet it’s around the first few lines when it sounds like Gilbert is repeating words just for the fun of it. Is it semantic satiation in a poem? You’re hearing the words but not getting the meaning.
I want to say that is exactly the point (and I’m sorry!). What the poem tells you comes true. In the first line: “We find out the heart only by dismantling what / the heart knows” and later on in a different way: “We must unlearn the constellations to see the stars.” By repeating what might sound like nonsense, unfiltered out of the poet’s mind, is really showing you that you have to “tear down” what you’re meant to think or feel and create your own meaning.
I’d argue that for the reasons that people avoid poetry is exactly the reason to read poems such as this one by Gilbert. Because the poem makes you think twice, the possibilities of its meaning become endless.
If you’re interested in Gilbert’s view on poetry and writing, here’s a great interview in The Paris Review.
What’s your take on this poem? Comments are open under the post, and on Facebook.