Do we need to explain the meaning of what we write, or should we let the reader work them out for themselves? Does it matter whether they fully understand what we are trying to say? What if they come up with their own interpretation that the writer hasn’t considered?
Obviously lots of poems, including many fabulous, famous and regularly anthologised ones, have a meaning that is easily understood. This doesn’t diminish their power or worth. But in other cases the understanding of the poem can be seen as a collaboration between reader and writer. And each interpretation will be different, based on the experiences and life lived of the person reading the poem, how, where and when they are reading it, and how it resonates with their state of mind and whatever is going on in their personal life and worldview at that time.
Isn’t this the case with most literature? I’ve read on several occasions that you should first read War & Peace in your teenage years. Maybe that’s why I’ve never managed to complete it. That’s the excuse I’m sticking with. Same with Dostoyevsky. I have tried. It could just be I don’t have the attention span these days.
But poetry differs from many other forms of writing in that it doesn’t need to have a meaning at all. It can be read purely for the language and form. Even here, a good poem will still communicate something to the person reading it, whether a phrase, a line, or even a single word that differentiates and illuminates the rest of the text around it.
On the other hand, sometimes as poets we try to overcomplicate what we are writing, to appear more poetic. Helena Nelson of Happenstance Press said that I was trying too hard with most of the poems that I sent her in an early attempt at pamphlet publication. She was right. Only two of the poems from that submission made it into my first collection.
There’s an excellent article in the New York Times here on this particular issue for poets;
I’ll finish of todays meandering monologue with a poem of my own – it’s pretty straightforward – who or what do you think it’s about?
How carefully chosen.
Those little stones you scuttled,
by shape, size, sometimes colour.
And so how you carried on,
kept moving the beach
one pent up pebble at a time.
There would be a day, you said,
when one would reach the horizon.
It would all be worth it then.
Your effort so expended,
on all this flailing,
one helpless soul at a time.
Maybe you should have listened
to tide-sirens’ crackle hiss,
scooping us up, pushing us back,
Now you are so close to the water.
And we are relentless.
And we will not be denied.
We have been here before.
This poem first appeared on the Abergavenny Small Press website in January 2021, having been submitted back in October 2020 and written a few months beforehand – does this change your view of who was its’ inspiration? If so, have you been paying enough attention to the news?
4 thoughts on “On Poetry Meanings”
I don’t know the back story or inspiration. It’s enough for me to enjoy the music or these atmospheric words and images.
Thanks Pratibha! I missed your message amongst all the spam replies!
Love the poem, Richard – regardless of the ‘back story’ you had in mind. Here in Suffolk, I miss close proximity to the sea, its timelessness and infinity. And you take me right there.
You have the truth of it in describing poetry as a collaboration. I remember how – in a workshop – Denise once missed what I’d intended as a clue to my allusion. She had thought my ‘three-word echoes’ to be “I love you” rather than the “Get Brexit Done” and “Take Back Control” I had in mind, and described her reading as “wrong”. Far from it. One of the many reasons I love poetry is how the writer can never know what perceptions the reader may bring, where they will place your imagery in their own landscape. It’s a bargain that brings delight to both parties.
Thanks Mark, really good to hear your thoughts – and sorry I missed your reply. I’ve been away from this blog for a couple of weeks for various reasons, some mentioned in my latest post that I am currently writing. Yes, the great thing with poetry is that openness to interpretation. Sometimes it’s say to forget to leave some space for alternative meanings.