“I never got poetry,” someone says to me again. And I sigh.
Because I never got it either—at least, not until I learned to stop worrying about “getting it.”
In fact, “get”—with its connotation of acquisition and possession—is the wrong word for what we do with poetry. As if a poem were something to be taken and kept. A half-gallon of milk to be picked up on the way home.
Walt Whitman jokes about this approach to poetry in section 2 of “Song of Myself”: “Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?” he asks. “Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?” Instead, Whitman urges us to “listen to all sides and filter them from your self.”
Whitman mentions another word that often complicates our experience of poetry: “meaning.” Meaning is the elephant in the poem’s cramped room, especially if that meaning is perceived to be “deeper” or “hidden.” If we are supposed to get a poem, its meaning is what we are supposed to get.
You might be all too familiar with this approach to poetry, especially if your experiences have taken place primarily in classrooms. Too many of us have been taught that poems resemble riddles to be solved rather than music to be heard or meals to be relished.
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems? We may answer No, because we remember being told that our ideas about poems were wrong, that the author meant something else entirely.
By the time I got to high school, I was so conditioned to seek the meaning of a poem that when I read “A poem should not mean / But be” (Archibald MacLeish), I wanted to demand: But what does that mean?
I think we need to change our approach.
I ask my students to consider the word meaning as a verb instead of a noun. That is: meaning is not something we achieve, arrive at, or get; instead, imagine that meaning is something we do, an active process through which we make sense of language and the world.
So, just as get is the wrong word for poetry, “What does a poem mean?” is the wrong question.
Robert B. Pierce, professor emeritus of Oberlin College, asks a better question in an essay called, “How Does a Poem Mean?” That how is especially important because it changes the way we think about meaning itself.
Meaning is not a fixed entity, the answer to some trivia question we’ll never be asked. Meaning changes. Just think about what the seemingly innocent word love meant to you at age eight, and age sixteen, and what it means to you now.
If we must think of the poem as possessing a meaning, that meaning is neither the exclusive property of the poet or of the audience. Meaning is a process in which we participate; we collaborate with the poet themselves to bring the poem to life between us.
In this model, “meaning” is not the answer to a trivia question: What is the capital of England? Instead, Pierce writes, to understand a poem “is like knowing a city, such as London. To know London is to be at home there; there is no set of pieces of information that constitutes my knowing the city, though information is part of the whole” (283). To know London, or a poem, we must first understand “that there is no one thing to know” (284).
To get to know a city, as Pierce suggests, you would need to walk its streets, sample its cafes, eavesdrop on the locals’ conversations. You would need to know where the museums are, of course, but you would also need to know how those museums smell.
To get to know a poem, you need to read it, ideally again and again. Better yet: hear it, say it aloud. Feel its sounds in your throat; try writing it out in your own hand.
Try it with Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays,” a poem you might indeed have encountered in a classroom. You might have learned that the poem portrays an adult’s conflicted memories about childhood and a distant, if dutiful, father. None of that is wrong, but none of it is enough. Instead, say the poem aloud until you can hear in your own voice the crackling of the fire Hayden recreates with “b” and “l” and “k” sounds: “Sundays too my father got up early / and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold.”
Notice that sneaky “too” in the opening line. That one word allows us insight into years of the family dynamic in the poem. “Sundays too”—this day, like all days, “I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.”
If you can hear it too, then you have become the poet’s collaborator. You and Hayden are “meaning” the poem yourself. And I suspect you will wince all the more at the heartwrenching repetition at the end of the poem: “What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices?”
Forget “deep meanings.” The best stuff is right there on the surface, if we can stop taking it for granted.
What’s deep is the pleasure we can find if we stop worrying that something is hidden. What there is to get is the sense that the poem belongs to us just as much as to the poet, that we make its meanings together. The poem can be the place where we meet.