Some Thoughts About Meaning in Poetry

Often poetry is taught in school as though each poem were some sort of rebus or puzzle that needs to be deconstructed, analyzed, and reconstructed to the specifications of whatever the present school of criticism is teaching about poetry.  Most people approach a poem as though it were some sort of exotic and potential deadly animal ready to unleash its fury at the slightest provocation.

I think we have Eliot and Pound to blame for that--purposeful obscurity and the creation of the rebus/puzzle poem.  But most poetry before the twentieth century, and a good deal during and after is not at all like that.  A poem is an invitation to take a break, to share a moment with the poet, to see as he or she does.  In that seeing you'll sometimes get a message, but if you don't, it is the seeing that is the thing after all.

Who really cares what Frost's "The Silken Tent" is about?

The Silken Tent
Robert Frost

She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when the sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To every thing on earth the compass round,
And only by one's going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightest bondage made aware.

Why not revel in the sentence--one long and perfect and glorious sentence that flows and says precisely what it means to say--neither more nor less--and invites us to hear all the resonance and meaning that it could have.  What is the profit if I dissect it and stick it on its pins into some vast lepidopteran cabinet of poetry, having analyzed and found the soul of it and made it mean for some time whatever it is I want it to mean?

Or take the differently lovely, "Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock"

Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock
Wallace Stevens 

The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
None of them are strange, 
With socks of lace
and beaded ceintures.
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
Catches tigers 
in red weather. 
I had a teacher once who spent two class periods trying to tell us what each of those color combinations meant or could mean under the varying circumstances of the poem.  But the poem is not a rebus--it isn't a puzzle.  It means more than we let it mean when we attempt to amputate limbs and put it through some sort of critical sausage grinder.

The first and most important and lasting thing a poem means is what we see and hear when we read it.  I don't know and I don't care what "The Waste Land" is supposedly about.  What I care about is that April is the cruelest month--for good cause.

I'm not saying that there isn't great joy in playing with a poem and looking at its working and determining how the poet achieves an effect and even determining what that effect is supposed to be.  But the first thing a person teaching poetry should do is introduce the student to the language, the rhythm, and the appreciation of the surface of a poem.  Only after one has learned to appreciate the delivery should one slice into it to see if it has been cooked to perfection.


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