Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 552

Speakers and listeners interact on several levels in “The Mind-Reader.” As the mind-reader speaks, she makes it clear that she is talking to a privileged listener. In speaking of “truly lost” things, she mentions that such things are “Unseen by any, even by you or me.” The “you,” the “professore”...

(The entire section contains 552 words.)

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Speakers and listeners interact on several levels in “The Mind-Reader.” As the mind-reader speaks, she makes it clear that she is talking to a privileged listener. In speaking of “truly lost” things, she mentions that such things are “Unseen by any, even by you or me.” The “you,” the “professore” who is finally addressed directly at poem’s end, is not specifically identified. Presumably she addresses the poet, who then transfers the monologue to the reader. Yet the possibility exists that she addresses another poetic persona, who may or may not be the poet. Moreover, her words make clear that, in this poem, speaker and listener are linked in the activity indicated by the title. Both “read” minds.

She refers to this directly only at the end of the poem, in a joking manner. After mentioning that she is “drinking studiously until my thought/ Is a blind lowered almost to the sill,” she responds to her listener: “Ah, you have read my mind. One more, perhaps . . ./ A mezzo-litro. Grazie, professore.” This ending pair of lines is the only suggestion that the “professore” has said anything at all. He may in fact have said nothing verbally, since he knew he was dealing with a mind-reader. He may have simply conceived the thought of buying her a drink, a thought which she then “read.” Earlier she spoke of the “professore” as being understanding of her situation. Presumably, as a mind-reader, she could accurately appraise her listeners. To what kind of person, then, would she entrust her true story? Quite possibly the listener is another mind-reader. “I tell you this/ Because you know that I have the gift, the burden,” she says. The listener knows, and the mind-reader knows of the listener’s knowledge. If the listener is also a mind-reader, the entire monologue might be unspoken, with speaker and listener reading each other’s minds.

On the other hand, since the “professore” may be the poet himself, the reader begins to see that Wilbur may be talking about himself as a poet or about poets in general. In writing a poem such as this, the poet throws herself or himself into the mind of another. The poet divines the truth about another person without words, even though words are the final result. Even the charlatan act may be consistent with the poet: “I lay/ My hand on theirs and go into my frenzy,/ Raising my eyes to heaven, snorting smoke,/ Lolling my head as in the fumes of Delphi,/ And then, with shaken, spirit-guided fingers,/ Set down the oracle.” The mind-reader writes fortunes on paper, even as the poet does poems; both feel pressure from their audience, who expect the miraculous on demand.

If both fortune-teller and poet set “mind” down on paper, moreover, what does this suggest of the reader? In reading the monologue, all become, in a sense, the subject of the poem. The reader is reading a mind. The identification of poet with mind-reader allows Wilbur to speak about the poet as the one who gives voice to a silent multitude. The fortune-teller says of her customers, “It contents them/ Not to have spoken, yet to have been heard.” Wilbur may well be speaking about readers, who encounter in poetry feelings felt but never expressed and thoughts thought but never spoken.

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