Understanding and Appreciating a Poem
The nonsensical idea that a poem can mean anything you want it to mean likely arises from the fact that poems do require a special reading. One reads a piece of prose, such as a newspaper article, rather quickly looking for basic pieces of information.
Reading a poem however requires more time and close thinking. The experience of reading a poem is an event that must be savored. You have to consider the meaning of metaphors, images, similes, and other poetic devices, in order to appreciate and understand the text of a poem.
Reading a short story requires more thought than the newspaper article because like the poem a short story might employ literary even poetic devices that may need an airing. Still one may give a more casual, quick reading to a short story, play, or literary essay than to any poem. Poems are intense, crystallized thought that simply require a special reading.
This essay offers six suggestions for understanding and appreciating poems. The following is brief summary of those suggestions:
- A word in a poem retains its original denotative meaning.
- A word in a poem may also take on additional or connotative meanings.
- A nutshell definition of a poem: A poem is an artistic representation of what it feels like to experience the emotional life of a human being.
- Right and wrong interpretations and two levels of meaning.
- Life experience and understanding.
- The special reading.
Linda Pastan's "Marks"
Using the poem, "Marks," by Linda Pastan, we will consider the notion that a poem "can mean anything you want it to" and then we will compare that notion to an interpretation that addresses the poem accurately.
My husband gives me an A
for last night's supper,
an incomplete for my ironing,
a B plus in bed.
My son says I am average,
an average mother, but if
I put my mind to it
I could improve.
My daughter believes
in Pass/Fail and tells me
I pass. Wait 'til they learn
I'm dropping out.
Reading of Linda Pastan's "Marks"
Based on the notion that a poem can mean anything you want it to mean, I offer the following claim for the meaning of this poem:
This poems means that death is part of all our lives, and we should learn to accept it. In the poem "Marks" stands for people. Some of us are A's, some of us are B+'s, some of us are average, some pass, and some fail. The speaker of the poem is a gay male, and his husband has just died. He "dropped out" — because he wasn't happy with the speaker leaving the ironing "incomplete." He probably needed his shirt, and it wasn't ironed, so he had to wear it wrinkled. The speaker of the poem believes that his children are weird for calling him mother, so he decided to commit suicide too; we know this, because he says in the last line, "I'm dropping out." But all of this could have been avoided if they had realized that death is part of life, and we must learn to accept it.
Now compare this claim about meaning to the following:
In the poem "Marks" the speaker is using a school metaphor to vent her frustration at being constantly evaluated by her family. "Marks" means grades, and each family member has his or her own system of grading the mother: the husband uses letter grades, giving his wife an "A / for last night's supper." She gets and "I"—incomplete—for ironing, because no doubt she didn't finish and probably left some of his clothes unironed. All of the grades are good grades, except for the ironing, but then an incomplete can be converted to an "A" as soon as the work is finished. The son is less discriminating than the husband; he just claims his mom is average, but he also thinks she has potential to become above average "if / [she puts her] mind to it." The daughter uses the pass/fail system, and the good news is the mother passes.
The mother, though, is somewhat perturbed by all this grading; after all running a household is not school, so stop all this evaluating, for goodness sakes, and so she says, "Wait 'til they learn / I'm dropping out." Keeping the school metaphor, she employs the verbs "learn" and "dropping out." Now the question is, what does the mother mean by saying she's dropping out? Does she mean she's leaving the household, divorcing the husband, abandoning the children? Does she mean she's going to commit suicide? I suggest that these measures are too drastic. The situation is not that ominous. After all, her "marks" are really good ones: A, B+, I (which can be replaced with an A); average, with the potential to be above average; and pass. The family is not negatively marking her. Why would she be motivated to abandon the family or commit suicide for getting such good marks? I suggest that her "dropping out" is a mild exaggeration and probably indicates that she is no longer going to care if they evaluate her. She's dropping out of the school metaphor; she will no longer consider herself open to evaluation. The poem is too playful to allow for the dire interpretation of family abandonment and suicide. The school metaphor makes it playful. In order to hint at abandonment or suicide I would argue that a speaker might use a legal metaphor, claim that she had been judged wrongly, imply that she was committed to prison unjustly; then the speaker might imply family abandonment or suicide.
Now which claim makes more sense?
It should be obvious that the first claim is preposterous, and I'll concede that in formulating it, I have exaggerated, but only a little. When I taught English composition at Ball State University, students often turned in essays that were similar to that erroneous reading. And many students coming into my classes brought the notion that "a poem can mean anything you want it to mean." The notion is widespread.
Walking to the library one day, I overheard a heated conversation between a young woman and her companion. I heard her say distinctly: "But I write poetry, and poetry doesn't have to make sense." What is the point of writing anything that doesn't make sense?
Words have meanings, and whether or not you choose to acknowledge their meanings, they still have them. When you say the word "sun," those who know that word will think of the big star that warms the Earth. They will not think of chocolate, socks, or death. Their first thought is the object that the word "sun" is designated to "mean."
There is no problem with this understanding until we encounter that word (or any word) in a poem. Many students have inferred from their early encounters with poetry that words in poems never retain their denotative meaning. So "sun" in a poem does not ever mean that big star that warms our planet; it will mean something different and only the teacher knows what it is.
Even as they believe it, students balk at the notion that only the teacher has the answer and therefore come away with the idea that since words always mean something different in poems, they must mean anything you want them to mean.
I have had students tell me that they never got the same thing out of a poem that the teacher did. And the students think they were always wrong, and the teacher was always right. This situation makes no sense to the student, and so in self-defense, they come away with the idea that "a poem can mean anything you want it to mean." At least that gives the students some self-esteem; it's better than believing that only the teacher has an answer, and the student will forever remain clueless about finding the answer.
But what is the answer? Why do poems present such a problem? Do words never retain their denotative meaning in poems? The solution to this problem is really a simple one. But it has become complex through a series of misunderstandings.
Sylvia Plath's "Morning Song"
Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.
Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.
In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.
I'm no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind's hand.
All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.
One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat's. The window square
Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.
Reading of Sylvia Plath's "Morning Song"
Six Suggestions for Reading a Poem
Focusing on Sylvia Plath's poem, "Morning Song," the following six suggestions offer ways of studying the poem closely, understanding how words in a poem work, and how to believe those actual words without trying to pull out profundities that are not there. Students often believe that all poems deal only with deep philosophical issues of life and death and then give moral advice.
Recall how the fake interpretation above concluded with remark, "But all of this could have been avoided if they had realized that death is part of life, and we must learn to accept it." And that poem, "Marks," had no such function. It is a playful poem that gives no thought to the profundities of life and death.
1. Denotative Meaning
Words in poems retain their meaning.
"Love" means love. "Statue" means statue. "Balloons" means balloons.
2. Connotative Meaning
Words in a poem may also take on additional meaning.
"Love set you going like a fat, gold watch."
"Love" takes on the additional meaning of "conception of the child," as well as the emotional and sexual attraction that drew the parents together in the act that resulted in the "conception" of the child.
"Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.
In a drafty museum . . ."
"Statue" takes on the additional meaning or connotation that the baby is like a new statue that a museum has recently added to its collection.
"And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons."
"Balloons" refer to the baby's sounds. The sounds seem to move upward, light and airy and colorful.
Notice how in each instance the words must first be understood to still keep their original, denotative meaning, and then on second, or perhaps third, reading and thinking, the reader discovers that those words have taken on additional, or connotative meanings as well. Notice also that one cannot get to the connotative, additional meaning, without the original, denotative meanings.
Therefore, always think first of the original, denotation meanings of the words, and then through the context of the poem you will be able to discern the additional, connotative meanings. And that is, of course, where the piece of work becomes a "poem."
3. Nutshell Definition of a Poem
A poem is an artistic representation of what it feels like to experience the emotional life of a human being.
We human beings are not satisfied with prose when it comes to representing our emotions. For example, a prose rendering of the poem, "Morning Song," may run something like this:
I am supposedly your mother, I conceived you, gave birth to you, but somehow, even as I run to you and care for you, I feel that you are a stranger to me.
Notice how bland and unremarkable this rendering is. The artist/poet is moved to explore those basic feelings and share them in a more specific and colorful medium; therefore, instead of the prosaic claim, "I conceived you," the poet dramatizes it by saying, "Love set you going like a fat, gold watch." Instead of saying, "I am supposedly your mother," the poet portrays that idea dramatically: "I'm no more your mother / Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow / Effacement at the wind's hand."
Instead of the dull remark, "I feel you are a stranger to me," the poet compares the baby to a new statue in a museum, and later states, "Your mouth opens clean as a cat's." Statues in museums are not intimate objects, and cats are universally noted to be independent creatures. So the point here is that as we are living this life and experiencing it, we react to it in unique ways; we each have our own attitudes toward experiences.
One mother might acknowledge only the closeness she feels for her child, while another stresses the distance she feels. That is where interpretation comes in, and that is also the place where students have been led astray. They ask me every semester, "Are we supposed to give you our own interpretation or the right one?" Again that idea that only the teacher knows the right interpretation, and now, if lucky, this teacher will let me state my own idea whether it is right or not.
4. Right and Wrong Interpretations and Two Levels of Meaning
By now it should be abundantly clear that there can be right and wrong interpretations of a poem. A poem has two levels of meaning, the surface level which includes the subject and event or simply what is going on in the poem; the deep meaning (sometimes inaccurately called "hidden meaning" by beginners) which includes the interpretation.
Interpretation results from the reader's discerning the implications of the surface level meaning. Confusing the two levels of meaning, the student settles for the notion that a poem can mean anything. It is one thing not to realize in the poem "Morning Song" that the speaker is a new mother speaking to her newborn baby, but quite another not realize that the mother seems to feel two ways about her baby.
And some students do not discern this elementary level of meaning; I have actually heard students claim that the speaker is a bird speaking to the sun, or a grandmother speaking to a grandchild. Of course, after a closer look, most students come to understand that truly the speaker is a mother speaking to her newborn. But others remain in a vague haze, continuing to believe, "if I want, I can still think it is a bird talking to the sun." Of course, and also if you want, you can think that putting a tooth under your pillow will result in some spare change by morning, although most people over the age of six have abandoned such thinking.
5. Life Experience and Understanding
Your own life experience will affect your understanding of a poem. But it will affect the interpretation more than it should affect understanding surface meaning, if you have grasped the suggestions offered in 1-4. Especially that the words still have their same meaning, although they may take on some additional meaning.
Obviously, a woman who has given birth and experienced nurturing a newborn will interpret meaning from the Plath poem that an inexperienced woman or man may not. But the inexperienced young woman or man is still able to recognize a mother speaking to an infant.
Take the line, "The midwife slapped your footsoles": why would a bird make such a remark to the sun? Would a bird listen to the sun's "moth-breath" all night? Imagine a bird claiming to be "cow-heavy and floral" in a Victorian night gown.
Obviously, the recognition of such common images is not denied the inexperienced in childbirth. Only the inexperienced in poetry reading find these words and images baffling.
6. The Special Reading
The purpose of poetry is not primarily to convey information. A poem requires a special reading, different from a newspaper article that you read quickly for the facts. A poem requires repeated readings/listenings. As does your favorite song. You do not listen to your favorite rock group to get the latest news. You listen to be transported by the music, to experience the emotion of the lyric, to be entertained by the drama. It is the same with poems. You read them to get back your emotional experience.
You have experienced profound pain in your life, and deep in your soul you remember what it was like, but you have probably not dramatized it. You discover the following poem, and you say to yourself, "Yes, that's the way it was. Yes, Emily Dickinson understood pain the same way I did, and she lived over a century ago, look at this, how universal my pain is." And you are suddenly bound up with art and the rest of humanity in ways you did not know existed.
Read this poem carefully and closely and see if you can identify with its description of experiencing pain:
Emily Dickinson's "After great pain, a formal feeling comes"
After great pain, a formal feeling comes —
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs —
The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,
And Yesterday, or Centuries before?
The Feet, mechanical, go round —
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought —
A Wooden way
A Quartz contentment, like a stone —
This is the Hour of Lead —
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow —
First — Chill — then Stupor — then the letting go —
Reading of Emily Dickinson's "After great pain, a formal feeling comes"
To Dramatize, Not the Teach
Not all poems offer moral advice nor do they delve into philosophical aspects of morality. Sometimes a poem just contains an experience of fun and laughter; sometimes it dramatizes a painful experience.
This Dickinson poem, while it focuses on a serious and even painful experience, does not offer advice about the experience. Most poems exist simply to dramatize the experience, not to teach others about how to behave or feel.
Now, if you still believe that a poem can mean anything you want it to, what do you want this one to mean?
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes