Reading, and thinking about, a poem is often a process of entertainment, much as Sherlock Holmes explains it in “The Red-Headed League”, describing the case he has just solved: “‘It saved me from ennui,’ he answered, yawning. ‘Alas! I already feel it closing in upon me. My life is spent in one long effort to escape from the commonplaces of existence. These little problems help me to do so.’” Mostly this description fits the activity, and I would happily concede to it, were it not for its underlying problem: it treats poems as puzzles, as riddles, which, once solved, have no other interest or serve no other purpose. This is obviously a faulty analogy between criminal cases and poems.
Nevertheless, Sherlock’s activities to solve cases are very similar to what my activities with poems are. I believe Sherlock’s blasé declaration between yawns is just a pantomime to make us believe everything he thought of in order to solve the case is obvious if one pays due attention (a procedure most common in the character and in literary critics). Sherlock is lying and I think the lie, once exposed, will allow for the analogy between Sherlock’s cases and poems to stand.
To start with, when hearing about the case, Sherlock says: “As a rule, when I have heard some slight indication of the course of events, I am able to guide myself by the thousands of other similar cases which occur to my memory.” Anyone, reading a poem, will do exactly the same, identifying similarities and disparities with many other poems already read. Mostly, poems go by without much friction, and I mostly stand unaware that anything special is going on (although, obviously, sometimes I immediately recognize glitches: “As far as I have heard it is impossible for me to say whether the present case is an instance of crime or not, but the course of events is certainly among the most singular that I have ever listened to”). I retain information from poems, sometimes I note details that seem incongruent, that do not fit in with the rest, or I just muse about my lack of understanding of the poem or of particular lines. These problems occupy my head as I go about my daily business.
Which is why I think reading a poem, and everything it entails, is better understood if we take notice of Dr. Watson’s description of Sherlock hearing German music in that same story: “My friend was an enthusiastic musician, being himself not only a very capable performer but a composer of no ordinary merit. All the afternoon he sat in the stalls wrapped in the most perfect happiness, gently waving his long, thin fingers in time to the music, while his gently smiling face and his languid, dreamy eyes were as unlike those of Holmes the sleuth-hound, Holmes the relentless, keen-witted, ready-handed criminal agent, as it was possible to conceive.”
The moment occurs the day Sherlock hears about the peculiar case of the Red-Headed League. As the potential client tells his story, Sherlock unfolds in his mind all the happenings and, in order to tighten up the loose ends, decides he has to visit the locations. There is a concert in St. James Hall where the “programme” has a “good deal” of German music, his favorite kind (“rather more to my taste than Italian or French. It is introspective, and I want to introspect”), and so he and Watson leave Baker Street to attend the concert; en route(a very relevant detail), they go by the pawnshop where their client works. Having seen all he needs, Sherlock is sure to have everything sorted out and proceeds to the concert where Watson describes him as mentioned above. The description involves not only Sherlock’s pleasure hearing the music, but the pleasure of having solved another case; the pleasure is also relatable to Sherlock’s musings about how to proceed after having the case solved, that is, how to apply the information he has gathered to real life in order to catch the perpetrator — “the fourth smartest man in London,” probably with “a claim to be third.” (Beyond solving crimes, one of his pleasures is dealing with peers — his are intellectually above average, but for a reader of a poem it could just be someone with whom to share points of view.) Sherlock’s lie is to dismiss his occupation as just a mental activity related to puzzle solving; a case, for him, is cause for the most varied actions, including attending concerts where he muses about his cases.
This is how reading and thinking about poems feels: mostly a way to escape the commonplaces of existence, and a pretext to deal with people with the same concerns; more often than not, it is an excuse to get out of the house and attend a concert of German music.
Telmo Rodrigues completed his PhD in Literary Theory at Faculty of Letters, University of Lisbon, with a thesis entitled For a Lark: The Poetry of Songs. In his thesis he explores relations between popular music and poetry. Currently he is the director of the magazine Forma de Vida.