A Note About Meaning

Let me say one brief thing about meaning in modern and contemporary poetry. I have been in a number of workshops where many poetry readers are bent on distilling every last drop of “meaning” from a poem. But there is another view: “Do not forget that a poem, although it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information,” as Ludwig Wittgenstein famously said. In Practical Criticism, I.A. Richards explored the way poems were read and interpreted by various readers. Readers were given texts, but deprived of the title of the poem and the name of its author. Naturally, “obscure” poems, by virtue of the density of expression and the particular strategies of the author, presented the greatest difficulty. Note Richards’ comments about the poem vis-à-vis rationality and coherence:

What we think of it as sense is, however, not the important point here, but rather a general question of the place of the plain prose sense, or thought, in poetry. No general rule, of course, can be laid down. Every case must be judged on its own merits, and the particular structure of the poem under judgment must be fully taken into account. There are types of poetry (Swinburne’s Before the Mirror for example) where the argument, the interconnection of the thought, has very little to do with the proper effect of the poem, where the thought may be incoherent and confused without harm, for the very simple reason that the poem is not using the argument, and so the incoherence may be neglected. There are other types where the effect of the poem may turn upon irrationality, where the special feelings which arise from recognizing incompatibility and contradiction are essential parts of the poem. (Not always mirthful feelings; they may be desperate or sublime. Compare the close of Marvell’s The Definition of Love.)

Meaning is what we give art when the medium itself is ineffable. Poems like T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land ” and John Berryman’s “The Dream Songs” are accepted today as having a discernible content and an interpretable discourse. But history tells us that the vast majority of critical readers didn’t know what to make of these poems until many years later when critical opinion eventually coalesced and pronounced their themes and method of discourse. Critics and informed readers put a frame around the poem in order to make sense of it and that frame often holds for a generation or more until other critical opinion reshapes the poem. But the poem itself is an abstraction and a mask of many faces. This is clearly true when one considers the many critical lenses through which to view a given poem, e.g., structuralist, deconstructionist, post-structuralist, Marxist, objectivist and so forth. I am not signing on to Derrida’s post-structuralist view of indeterminacy, but instead seeing the poem as an organism or state of being which we readers experience through varying intellectual lenses that may change as we develop different paradigms of analyses. So don’t get hung up on definitive meanings. Approach the poem as if entering a new country, as Randall Jarrell advised, and learn the language and terrain. Most importantly, it is the experience of reading the poem that matters. In his preface to The Wedge (1944), William Carlos Williams wrote, “A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words. . . . It isn’t what [the poet] says that counts as a work of art, it’s what he makes.” If the poem doesn’t contain a high entertainment value for you, and I use the phrase in the broadest sense, if the poem doesn’t resonate in any pleasing and satisfying manner, maybe you haven’t absorbed the total experience of the poem and need to read and study more. But if more studying and reading doesn’t help the cause of the poem, then the poem is probably not for you. Poems should be given the same sensory respect that works of pictorial, choreographic and sculptural art receive. You either surrender your preconceptions at the door to the poem, as in the old days, when cowboys were made to surrender their guns before they were allowed to drink at the saloon, or carry them with you and be turned away from the opportunities the poem offers to expand your horizons, especially when the poet is someone with real talent. Poems do communicate intelligible ideas and can mean many things, but in ways that even the most expert reader can verbalize only incompletely.

For more on the subject of meaning in poetry, I recommend Reginald Shepherd’s brilliant essay, “On Difficulty in Poetry,” which originally appeared in the May/Summer 2008 issue of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ magazine.

Categories: Literary Criticism

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