Poetry essay: Interpreting poetry

As a reader of poetry, you may from time to time try to interpret the poetry you read.  There are a number of reasons you might do this.

First, a poem might not be clear with a first reading.  You might read a poem and not fully understand what it is talking about.  This could motivate you to try to go through the poem to decipher the meaning.

Second, some poetry might appear clear in meaning, but could have hidden symbolism.  As a reader, you might be interested in trying to discover what this is.

Third, poetry sometimes has context.  For example, it could be related to a specific place or a specific time.  Looking into the poem with the context in mind, could enhance your understanding of it.

Fourth, interpreting poetry can help you write poetry.  By figuring out what poems mean you can learn how incorporate different meanings into your own work.

It’s a little difficult to describe how to interpret a poem.  In some sense, you simply read it and try to figure out what it means.  In some cases you might do research (for example, looking up a proper noun mentioned in a poem), but in other cases you might just be reading.

Rather than listing a methodology for interpreting a poem, it seemed like it would be better to simply show the process.  With that in mind, below is poem that will be interpreted.

The poem to be interpreted is Among the planets.  It appeared in the November 6, 2017 blog post on this blog.  It was written by M. Sakran.

While it may seem odd for a person to interpret a poem they wrote, this poem was chosen partially because of that.

This poem was a poem with an explanation.  The explanation of the poem is below it in the post.  As this is being written, the explanation has not be read since it was posted.  M. Sakran is not clear at this time what the poem means.

The idea was to interpret a poem for which the right answer was known.  This way, the effectiveness of the interpretation could be gauged.  If a poem by another poet was chosen (or one without an explanation) there would be no way to know if the interpretation was right.

This poem was written long enough ago, that at this moment, M. Sakran is not clear on its meaning.  This makes it a good candidate for interpretation.

Here is the poem:

Among the planets

There’s a counting,
is it a fortnight?
There’s a counting,
every other Mars.
But one is missed –
what is that,
a cycle of the Moon?

The sandy beaches,
of a moon of Jupiter,
an imagined place,
of forgetfulness.

Alone,
in the silence of a cave,
of Pluto,
as if transported,
from place and time,
watching the Sun,
go in circles and circles,
as night approaches.

 

Here’s an attempt to interpret its meaning:

The title is “Among the planets” presumably this has something to do with the sky.  It might have to do with patterns, as planets follow orbits.  It could have to do with time, as the sky is used to tell time.  It might have to do with large things.

There’s a counting, is it a fortnight?

This is the first sentence of the poem.  It asks a question.  Someone in the poem is gauging time, but is not sure how long that time is.  They are trying to figure it out, and think it might be a fortnight.  A fortnight is two weeks which is fourteen days.  The number fourteen might mean something or it could simply be that roughly that amount of time has passed.

There’s a counting, every other Mars.

This is the second sentence of the poem.  It repeats the idea from the first sentence.  Someone in the poem is trying to gauge time.  In this line, they seem to be gauging time by the orbit of Mars.  Mars might relate to Tuesday.  Tuesday in Spanish is Martes, which derives its name from the planet Mars.  This ties back into the idea of two weeks.  The person in the poem is noting something that happens every other Tuesday.  One Tuesday, to the one after the next, is one day over two weeks.

But one is missed – what is that, a cycle of the Moon?

This is the third sentence of the poem.  Again, there seems to be some idea that the person in the poem is having trouble gauging time.  They think it has been two weeks, or every other Tuesday, but something does not add up.  They might be missing a Tuesday.  Something in their time calculation is not working.

The poem says, a cycle of the Moon.  A cycle of the Moon would refer to a month, which is approximately one cycle of the Moon.  Maybe the person in the poem thinks two weeks have passed, but since the month changed, they are not sure.  They don’t seem to be sure how many days have passed because they can’t just subtract the current date number from the previous one.  This is because the days started over when the month changed.

The sandy beaches, of a moon of Jupiter, an imagined place, of forgetfulness.

This is the fourth sentence of the poem.  The first part The sandy beaches, seems again to go back to time.  Sand is in an hourglass and that could be the reference.  Maybe it means there is a lot of time because there is a lot of sand on a beach.

Of a moon of Jupiter, an imagined place, of forgetfulness seems to go back to the idea that the person is not sure of the time.  A moon of Jupiter is familiar, in that it is a moon like the Moon, but it is unknown.  The person in the poem seems to referring to the idea that they are confused.  The person’s thoughts might be somewhere else, which is why they are unsure of the time.

Alone, in the silence of a cave, of Pluto, as if transported, from place and time, watching the Sun, go in circles and circles, as night approaches.

This is the last sentence of the poem.  Alone, in the silence of a cave, of Pluto, as if transported, from place and time might refer to the idea that the person in the poem is lost in their thoughts.  They mind is on something far away (like Pluto) and this has caused them some isolation (Along, in the silence of a cave).  They are separated from where they are (as if transported, from place and time).  The person seems to have something occupying their thoughts.

The next part says, watching the Sun, go in circles and circles, as night approaches.  This again refers to the idea of time.  On the Earth, it appears that the Sun circles overhead.  This is how days are measured.  The person in the poem, who is lost in their thoughts, is watching the days go by.  The poem ends with as night approaches, which may refer to the idea that the person ends in darkness.  The person ends in confusion.

The main theme of the poem seems to be that a person is having trouble gauging how much time has passed because they have something on their mind.

So, the above is one interpretation of the poem.  Again, it was written before the actual explanation of the poem was read.  Below is the actual explanation of the poem form the original blog post:

This poem is about an elderly person in a nursing home.  The person is supposed to be visited by their family every other Tuesday, but their family missed the last visit.

In the poem, it is the fifth Tuesday.  The person’s family came on the first Tuesday.  They were supposed to come on the third Tuesday, but did not.  Now it is the fifth Tuesday, which is the next scheduled visit day.

The poem starts with a question, There’s a counting, is it a fortnight?  The elderly person is trying to think about how often their family visits.  They wonder what a time period name for every other Tuesday might be.  They have trouble counting the days, but think that it might be called a fortnight, which is fourteen days.  They are somewhat upset and aren’t able to focus and know how many days it really is.

The elderly person continues to think about the time between visits.  They describe “every other Tuesday” as “every other Mars.”  Tuesday, in Spanish is called Martes, which is a reference to Mars.  The idea of astronomy as a background idea continues in the poem.

They then describe the idea that one of the visits was missed (But one is missed).  Again, they are having trouble counting and wonder if that is a month between visits (what is that, a cycle of the Moon?).  This again is an astronomy idea in the background.

The poem then partially shifts perspectives.  In the next stanza, there is a blurring of the point of view of the elderly person and that of their family.

The elderly person imagines their family being somewhere fun and far away (The sandy beaches, of a moon of Jupiter).  Their thoughts are imaginary though (an imagined place).  Their family is just out living their lives as normal.  The place though, and this is a blending of the viewpoints, is one of forgetfulness.  The elderly person imagines their family forgetting them, and, for the most part, at least at times, their family does.

The perspective then shifts back to the elderly person.  They think of their reality as, “Alone, in the silence of a cave, of Pluto“.  The person is alone, as in the sense that they have no company.  They have no one to talk to (in the silence), and they feel hidden (of a cave).  The place the person is at is described as being of Pluto.  Pluto, at one time, was the farthest planet from the Sun.  This describes the person’s separation from their family.  Also, Pluto is no longer a planet.  This idea describes the sense of demotion the person feels in their sense of abandonment.  The detachment and separation the person feels is further described as if transported, from place and time.

The elderly person is in their room and they feel the days pass.  This is described as “watching the Sun go in circles and circles“.  The person has a sense that they will die soon (as night approaches).  There’s a sense of dejection.

 

This poem, in some sense, is about neglect by apathy.  The person’s family sees the elderly person as an obligation.  They see them as something that takes up time.  They feel the visits are a burden.  This is demonstrated in part by the fact that the visits are scheduled and sparse.

The person’s family isn’t mean in a sense.  They just feel detached from the elderly person.  They don’t feel a strong connection.  Seeing the person is almost viewed like completing community service to them.

The poem focuses on the perspective of the elderly person.  There is the idea, that a missed visit is very important to them, but not important to their family.

Astronomy was used in the poem as a descriptive tool.  The idea was to make the feelings of the person seem larger in a way.

 

As can be seen, the interpretation of the poem written for this post, wasn’t entirely accurate.  It did get a sense of the passage of time, but it missed the underlying meaning of the poem.  It was close in the sense that the person in the poem is concerned about time and they have something on their mind, but it missed the main idea of the poem.

This exercise is a good illustration in poetry interpretation.  It shows how some symbolism can be deciphered, but also how it can be difficult to sometimes truly understand the meaning.

While it might seem like the interpretation was unsuccessful, it should not be viewed as such.  The interpretation was an exercise.  It was an attempt at understanding.  Part of worked, part of it did not.  That being said, it still was a good learning tool.

In trying to interpret poems, a reader might have to accept that they will never know if they are right, and, they might have to accept that in some instances, they will be wrong.

This does not detract from the value of the interpretation though.  The exercise has value in itself, but also, as long as a person gains something from a poem, it was worthwhile.  Although they might not have interpreted what the poet intended, as long as the reader learns in some way, it had value.

M. Sakran recommends that readers spend some time trying to interpret poems. It can be a very good learning experience and it can improve a person’s ability to read and write poetry. If you are interested in practicing with poems that have detailed explanations provided, check out Understanding: poems with explanations.  It has twenty poems along with detailed explanations.  It can be a useful tool in learning how to interpret poetry.

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