February 19, 2016

Dear Poet: What does your poem mean?


My friend and fellow poet, Adele Kenny, posted one of her writing prompts recently that asks us to think about what one of our poems means. Think of this in the way a student might ask a poet that question.

As a teacher of poetry, I had many students - young and old - ask me what the poet (not present, perhaps long gone) "meant" by a word, line or the entire poem. That should be an easy question to answer if you are the author of the poem, but sometimes it is not easy.

Haven't you heard poets avoid an answer to that question? Perhaps because they don't want to hand you the answer, or because that don't want to trap the poem in one cage of meaning, or because they don't know the meaning for sure either.

Adele quotes Michael T. Young who says that
“When people ask what a poem means, it seems they expect to be led back to some point of origin that is a clear thought, articulated as prose, and which then defines the poem. The problem is that poems emerge out of fog. A poet doesn’t have a thought that he translates into words but more often he has a vague feeling, “a sense of wrong, a homesickness”—as Frost called it—that he struggles to find words for. It’s one of the reasons it nearly always stumps a poet to be asked what his poem means."

I recall reading a new poem of mine aloud for the first time many years ago. The poem is titled "Weekend With Dad." After the reading, a woman came up to me and thanked me for the reading and in particular that poem. She said, "I can really identify with that poem because I am a single parent too." I thanked her, But, I am not a single parent.

I thought about, as Adele's prompt asks us to do, what my poem means. To me, it was about spending the weekend with my one son because I was giving my wife time with our newborn second son. The poem was about trying to protect who we are, knowing that we will both age, grow, and change. But I had to admit to myself that the poem and the title certainly open a door to the woman's different interpretation.

This is one of the reasons writers like to be in writing groups and read their poems and be read and hear what listeners and readers think about their work.

When you send your poem out into the world, like a child, it takes on its own life, and you have very little control over its destiny.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting! It's rare for any sort of work to have one set meaning or be about one thing. That's sort of what's great about it right?

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