How does a poem mean?
Ever been shaken by coming up against a poem on the page that defies any meaning, one that might as well be written in the Finnish tongue as far as you're concerned? I brought up that subject at my Alabama Humanities Foundation Road Scholar workshop yesterday.
Wow! What a lively and supportive bunch of writers in Calhoun County! Thanks for coming!Yesterday at noon we met at the library and I presented my "Nine Bean Rows: Planting the Divine Detail" to about thirty-five folks. It started with a very professional recorded introduction by Alice Duckett who had invited me. For publicity of the event, Alice went to the local radio station to be interviewed about the meeting. Her recorded interview was wonderful!
The reason I write is this: in our discussion of poetry after the workshop, I offered the suggestion (not original with me at all--John Ciardi had a whole book with this title) that when you're baffled by how to approach a poem, try not to limit your thinking to what does this poem mean, but find an entry point at which you can think about how does this poem mean. There was not nearly enough time in the hour we had to sufficiently explain what I meant.
I offered as example the first line of my persona poem, "November Kitchen." The first line is "Her kitchen is rosemary." That line many seem confusing at first. That line alone does not suggest any concrete meeting, but it does suggest to the reader by that singular metaphor (the direct comparison of the kitchen to rosemary) that this is not the typical opening line of a poem.
What does the line mean? Who knows?
How does it mean? Well, it suggests that the persona of the poem is in her kitchen. Perhaps the kitchen is her writing place. At least it must be a special place to be mentioned in this first line. It suggests that her kitchen perhaps smells like the pungent herb cooks use to enhance pork, or beef, or many dishes. So we could conjecture that she must enjoy and savor cooking.
That first line is a promise to the reader. It names and reinforces the setting, the kitchen, repeated from the title, and suggests a tone--a little unsettling, perhaps a little offbeat for the rest of the poem. With just this tiny hole we've picked in the first line, perhaps we can unravel enough seams to get into the whole poem. Perhaps something is awry with this woman in her kitchen which smells like rosemary.
Yesterday when I was holding forth, when I said we shouldn't struggle to determine the meaning of a poem (See Billy Collins' poem "Introduction to Poetry"), one writer objected and gave a really sensible counter argument about looking for the meaning in a poem. He said he understood completely the meaning of Frost's poem, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." I was delighted to have someone offer a counter opinion, and even more to discuss this beloved poem.
There wasn't enough time to compare and contrast Frost's first line with the first line of my poem above. Frost's first line is "Whose woods these are I think I know/."
Now, what a striking contrast: first, listen to this line. It is the sound more than the content that draws us into the poem. Say it aloud and you can't help hearing this perfect iambic tetrameter line. (whose WOODS/ these ARE/ i THINK / i KNOW) Even if you'd never read Frost and did not know that he always uses traditional meter and rhyme, you would know immediately (in his first line-promise) that this poem would probably have a similar beat/meter.
And how interesting that it should be sound! Snow blankets and quietens everything.
The reader knows from this one line that the persona of this poem is attracted to the woods (the title indicates he has stopped) and perhaps that the snow is so deep that the woods are unrecognizable. He only "thinks" he knows whose woods these are.
If someone asked me whether he should use "I think" in a poem, I'd say, "No." Why? Consider the difference in these two statements: "I think God exists"/"God exists." Which is the stronger and more convincing statement? The latter, of course.
But isn't it wonderful the way Frost proves this English teacher-turned Road Scholar wrong?? He cleverly uses "I think" to suggest that the landscape is so snow-covered you can't distinguish one neighbor's trees from another, or that perhaps in the dusky dark of New England he can't do so.
My only point is this: if you should encounter a poem which scares you to death to read it for fear you won't understand it, don't TRY to understand it. Dissect it; delve into the structure of the poem, and let it know who's boss.
Examine its meter, its rhyme, its tone, its imagery--pick the tiniest hole to start and soon you will have opened several seams of understanding. Before you know it, you'll start to come up with what the poet wanted to impart to the reader.
Handle the poem as you would handle a yummy, buttery, from-scratch pie crust when transferring it to the pie pan. Let the poem know who's in charge here!