What is the interpretation of the poem "Sanctuary"?

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liesljohnson eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I wouldn't say that there is any one particular valid interpretation of "Sanctuary" by Jean Valentine. Her poem has inspired many different interpretations. Some readers find it inspiring, some find it depressing. Some think it's deeply profound, while others have called it "McPoetry"!

Let's start by trying to figure out what's going on in the poem.

It opens with an epigraph (a short quotation from something else) that talks about how real interpersonal communication can be so meaningful and intimate that it's like the act of praying.

Then the poem itself begins. Because the whole thing has a dreamlike, disjointed quality, we don't really see any straightforward, clearly meaningful sentences, just fragments, short questions, ellipses (the three dots, like this: ...) and unexpected spaces. Two strangers are talking in a room. We're not told what the room is or where it is, but some readers see it as a prison cell, since Valentine herself volunteered in prisons. Anyway, the people ask each other questions, and they talk about solitude, death, dread, fear, communication and connection with others, and the afterlife. The poem concludes with these lines:

Yes I know: the thread you have to keep finding, over again, to

follow it back to life; I know. Impossible, sometimes.

With those lines, the speaker seems to be acknowledging how the poem itself is fully open to interpretation: that we have to find a "thread" of meaning in it and use that to anchor the poem to something valid in real life, which can seem "impossible."

So, what does the poem mean?

Again, it's extremely open to the individual reader's interpretation. Personally, I read the poem as a conversation between two people who are desperate to hear each other and to be understood, but they struggle toward these goals without actually reaching them.

I interpret the title "Sanctuary" to mean not necessarily a holy religious place, but a room (or the figurative room) in which we allow ourselves to know someone else so well that it's like we've stepped outside of our "own skin" to see through "other eyes."

The poem's insistence on the lines "not scatter the voices," "not having listened," and "not having asked" seem to indicate that the thing we should fear most is a failure to have truly communicated with others: to have disregarded what they've said, or to not have listened to what they've said, or to have failed to ask the important questions that could have helped us understand other people.

Valentine's overall message in the poem, as I see it, is that the act of communicating with others is so important that it's holy and we should treat it with reverence, even if we fail to do it well.

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