a cup of tea
when shared with someone
can mean something more
a cup of tea
a cup of tea
when shared with someone
can mean something more
Today’s experimental poetry form is called four, four word steps. In the form, there are four stanzas. Each stanza has two lines. Each line has two words. The second, third, and fourth stanzas are indented ten, twenty, and thirty spaces respectively. Here is what the form looks like
Here is an example poem written in the form:
If you’ve ever read a poem that was written years ago you may have wondered about this question. Are you seeing the poem in the same way as readers did when it was written? Are you seeing the poem the same as the author intended? Does the meaning of a poem change over time?
From one perspective, the answer to this question is no. There is the idea that when a poet writes a poem they impart meaning to it. There is meaning in the symbolism, the word choice, and the form.
In some sense, this meaning is fixed. The poem means what the poet wanted it to mean. Whether people later (or even at the time) interpret it differently doesn’t change that. The original meaning is still there.
In another sense though, it could be argued that the meaning of a poem does change over time. There is the idea that a poem changes with history, the audience, and with language.
Think about a poem about a current event. When the poem was written, the event was current. Readers would see the poem from the perspective of the present. In the future though, readers have the perspective of looking back on the past. They, in some sense, know what happens later and so have a different perspective on what happened before.
Think about reading a poem about some event in the 1960s. An example might be an election taking place. If you look up the election, and know who won, the poem might seem different to you than it would to a person who was reading it at the time who didn’t know who was going to win.
In addition to this idea, readers of poems can change. Society can change. Attitudes and preferences can change. A poem written in the past might seem very different to a present audience and by extension would seem different to a future one.
Think about gender roles in history. These can change over time. A poem portraying the status of a woman in the 1800s might seem very different to today’s audience. A poem that was meant to be very progressive at the time, might seem just the opposite to someone reading it today.
In addition to this, language can change. Over time people don’t use the same words and they might not use the words they use in the same way. Readers of poems might get a very different meaning if they understand the language differently.
Think about dialing a phone. In the past, if used a rotary telephone, you actually dialed a number. You physically turned a dial to input each number. Now the word simply means to input a number to make a phone call.
If a person was reading a poem from the past, and it talked about the physical act of dialing a phone and related it to other things, the meaning might not be clear to them if they don’t understand the word in the same way.
There are implications to these ideas.
First, if you are reading a poem from the past, you might be concerned that you aren’t getting from it what was intended. You might feel you are missing something or are seeing it in the wrong way. This same concern applies to any poetry interpretation, whether a poem from the past or a new one.
Second, if you are writing poetry, you might wonder how readers of your work will perceive it over time. Will they see the same things you intended? Will history change the tone of your work? Will they read the words in the same way?
This might be a concern if you want your work to be lasting. You might worry that time will change your work.
If you are concerned about the first issue, you might try to place poems in context. Learn about the author and the time period of the poem. Read their other work. This can help you place the poem in perspective.
If are worried about the second issue, you could first try to write poetry that is clearer in meaning. Leaving out the issue of obscurity will help the meaning of the poem get through. You could also consider writing explanations of some your poems, as M. Sakran does for some poems on this blog. That way readers would know your meaning even after time changes.
Does the meaning of a poem change over time?
In some sense the answer is both yes and no. A poem has a fixed meaning, but the meaning that people get from it can change. As a reader and a writer of poetry you should consider this. It can help you try to see poems from the past from the intended perspective, and it can help you to impart more lasting meaning to your work.
Words you can’t pronounce
take on a whole new meaning
when they’re inside of you
or someone you know.
This poem is about cancer. Cancer is filled with all sorts of terms. There are disease names, medicine names, names for things in blood tests, and more. The terms are often about complex ideas and they can be hard to pronounce.
If a person doesn’t have cancer, or isn’t close to someone who has it, these terms don’t have much meaning. A person not close to cancer might hear them in an ad for a medicine for example, and they don’t know what the terms mean and don’t pay much attention to them.
The experience though is different for a person with the disease or for someone close to them. These obscure terms all of a sudden have a meaning and significance. A measure of something in the blood or a medicine name have a whole new meaning when they’re personal.
The idea of this poem is to point out the idea of perspective; the idea that importance depends on situation. This idea comes up at many instances in life. How many times, for example, have you heard a news story about something unrelated to you? What happened? You may have forgotten about it right after you heard it. If though, the story was personal to you, you may have listened intently and even acted on what you heard. There is a difference based on situation.
This notion applies to so many things. Debt, prison, disease, natural disasters, and a multitude of negative things, take on a whole new perspective when they are personal. All of a sudden information about them matters.
This is an important idea for people. Realizing it can help promote empathy. Once you realize that something obscure to you can be important to someone else, you can better put yourself in their situation and can better understand how they feel.
There are a lot of ways to look at poetry, but three ways that a person can think about when trying to decide what they think of a poem are:
what it says,
what it means,
and what it sounds like.
What is says
Looking at what a poem says means looking at a poem literally. It means looking at what it actually says and taking that at face value, without looking for underlying meanings or symbolism, and without looking deeper. It is a “what you see, is what you get” way of seeing things.
The idea here is to examine the literal expression of the poem. As an example, look at the following poem:
And there upon the snow did shine,
the light of night when stars did climb,
as wind did blow through trees of pine,
as stars did mark the night’s own time.
In this poem, literally, there is a nighttime winter scene. There is snow on the ground and light from the stars is shining on it. There is wind in the pine trees and time is passing.
Looking at what a poem says, a reader would take this scene literally. They would try to decide what they thought of the scene the poem creates.
What it means
Looking at what a poem means, means looking at the symbolism and metaphor in a poem, or looking deeper within it. It means trying to figure out the actual intent of a poem, which may differ from the literal expression.
Again, a person can examine the poem above. There are different ways to interpret it.
If a reader went the literal route, and thought the poem meant what it said, they would see a winter scene. They would understand that the poem takes place in a place where there is snow. They would also know that the night was clear because the light and stars could be seen. They would know that it was windy. Additionally, they would understand that the poem was in a place where there were pine trees. They would also understand the passage of time.
Looking at the poem this way, the reader would get a definite sense of place in the poem. They would be seeing a certain place that differs from others.
If a person thought this way, they would be seeing the poem literally, but would be looking deeper within it. They could go a step further and see more meaning in the words.
For example, a reader might think that because the stars could be seen, that there was not much light pollution in the scene in the poem. A reader might see this as an indication that part of the intent of the poem was to say light pollution was a negative thing.
A reader could do this same thing with other ideas presented in the poem. By doing so, a reader might interpret a message in the literal words of the poem.
In addition to thinking about what the poem meant literally, a reader might also look for symbolism in the poem. They might see the poem as a metaphor for something else.
One interpretation might be to see this poem as a metaphor for surgery (that was not its original intent, just one interpretation).
In this interpretation, a person is having surgery. They are covered with a white sheet before it begins (the snow). They are in room with lights above (And there upon the snow did shine, the light). The lights are lifted above them (when stars did climb). The surgery is seen as an ominous thing, and so the light is “the light of night”.
The wind blowing through trees of pine is the ventilation system in the surgery room. The person is still conscious and can hear the air moving through the medical equipment (trees of pine).
The surgery is seen as ominous by the person having it. The lights in the room are there for the duration of the surgery. The lights mark the surgery’s time, rather than the person’s (as stars did mark the night’s own time).
If a reader thought of this interpretation of the poem, they could examine what they thought about it and decide how they felt about the poem.
What it sounds like
The poem used here was written with a specific form. It is one stanza. Each line is written in iambic tetrameter. Lines one and three rhyme and lines two and four rhyme. A reader of the poem should be able to sense the form, even if they did not know what it was.
Additionally, the poem was written with an attempt to sound poetic. The idea of light, night, and stars were all used to make the poem sound poetic.
A reader reading the poem, might look at it just from the perspective of what it sounded like. They might ignore the literal words as well as any potential symbolism and just listen to how it sounds. In this case, the poem has flow and rhyme with a poetic sound.
The three different views
When a person tries to decide what they think of a poem, they can look at it from one or more of the perspectives above. This raises some ideas.
First, there might the question of which view was the best. Should the quality of a poem be evaluated based on its literal words, its meaning, or its sound? Different people will have different perspectives.
Second, there is the idea of combining the different views. A person could look at a poem’s meaning and sound together for example. This would give a different view than if they were looked at separately.
Third, is the question of what happens if a reader likes one of the views but not another one. For example, what if a reader liked the way this poem sounded, but didn’t like any of the interpretations of its meaning. Could a person still like a poem if they didn’t like what it meant? Could a poem be liked only for its sound or literal words?
When a reader thinks about what they think of a poem, there are different ways they can see it. If a reader considers these ways, and tries to look at a poem from each of them, they can gain a better appreciation for a poem and for their own perspective on it.
If you’ve read this blog before, you’ve probably noticed a recurring category is poems with explanations. These are poems written and explained by M. Sakran. There are over one hundred on this blog. M. Sakran also has a self-published eBook available for purchase called Understanding: poems with explanations.
Having explained poems raises an interesting thought: What’s the difference between who explains a poem? What’s the difference between an author explaining their poem, the reader of a poem thinking about what it means or a reader reading someone else’s explanation of a poem?
This idea sometimes comes up with art. Does an artwork mean what the artist says it means? Does it mean what each viewer thinks it means? Does it mean what some third party says it means?
Each of these points of view has pros and cons in terms of explaining poetry, but each has value in explaining.
Obviously, from the abundance of explained poems on this blog and the eBook of them, M. Sakran sees value in an author explaining their own work for readers. There are a number of reasons for this.
First, the reader actually learns what the author meant. While readers can come up with their own ideas and while they might hear the ideas of others, there is a sense that they never know if they are really right. No matter how rational or thought out the explanations are, there is still always a bit of uncertainty involved without knowing what the author really meant.
This issue is solved when an author explains their own work. Readers know exactly what the author meant. The symbolism, metaphor, form elements and so forth are all explained. A reader can truly understand what a particular poem meant.
Second, having the author explain their own work can be a great learning tool. A reader can read a poem and think of what they think it means. While this has value by itself, it has more value when the reader has something they can check it against. A reader can find out how well they really understood a poem.
Third, when an author explains their own work, it means the true meaning of the work comes through. With poetry, art, music and other creative endeavors there is the problem that can sometimes occur that readers, viewers or listeners don’t understand the work as the author intended. They miss the message that was sent and may see messages that aren’t there. While there is value in personal interpretation, it can cause an issue if an author had something specific they wanted to get across. It can be frustrating to an author to feel like they are saying one thing, but consumers of their work are hearing another. When an author explains their own work though, this issue is solved.
Despite the benefits of an author explaining their own work, there are some downsides.
First, it can take away from a central component of poetry – the idea that each person sees something different in a poem. While each reader can form their own interpretation, when they find out what the author really meant, that aspect is gone. The idea of creative thinking is stopped. An aspect of discussion is gone. It’s almost like when a magician explains a trick – the idea of trying to figure out how it was done disappears.
Second, while an author can explain their own work, they might not always do so completely. There can often be subconscious elements in poetry. An author may have included things that have symbolism and meaning and may not have even realized it. Having someone else explain a poem though, can point these things out.
Interpreting poetry is something that can be central to reading poems. While some poems are overt and clear in their meaning, other poems have more subtly and obscurity. Even seemingly simple poems can have layers of meaning hidden within them.
Interpreting poetry might be an exercise you do in a class. The class reads a number of poems and then goes line by line trying to understand what the poems truly mean. They may include outside information such as historical information, information about the life of the authors or information about word meaning. The idea is in some way to expound upon the symbolism. It might be similar to when a clause in a contract is explained in plain language. A one sentence clause might take five sentences to explain what it means.
There is a lot of value in a reader explaining poetry they read to themselves.
First, as mentioned above, having readers get their own meaning from poetry is a big part of the idea of poetry. It’s like art in a way. In some regard it is supposed to be different for each person. This idea can be enhanced when a reader explains a poem for themselves. They can get a better understanding of what they think a poem means and get more out of the reading experience.
Second, when a reader explains a poem to themselves, it can be a good learning exercise. A reader learns to look into a poem. They learn to see symbolism and metaphor. They get experience seeing form elements. They learn how the different pieces of a poem fit together. This experience can improve a person’s ability to read poetry and also improve their ability to write it.
While there is value in a reader explaining poetry for themselves, there are some downsides.
First, as mentioned, a reader, without information from the author, will not ever know if they were correct in their interpretation. It can be like taking a test, but not getting a grade.
While some may argue that being “correct” in interpreting poetry isn’t the idea of poetry, there is value in it if a reader wants to understand an author’s intention. If a reader wants to understand what a poem “really means”, at least from the author’s perspective, then explaining it themselves can leave this unfulfilled.
Second, when a reader explains a poem for themselves they bring their own history and perspective to it. What symbolism a reader sees in a poem, and how they see it, is influenced by the life of the reader. Readers will see different things and see them differently depending on their history, where they live, their education, their age and so forth.
While this may be seen as a good thing in terms of the idea of each reader seeing a poem differently, it could also be seen as something that distorts the meaning of a poem. In a sense, a reader is bringing bias into their explanation of a poem. Their view in some sense is clouded.
Readers of poetry sometimes can read explanations of poems written by someone other than the authors of the poems. Some examples of this might be things like:
Reading a review of a poetry book where the reviewer writes about the meaning of certain poems in the book.
Reading a book that explains the poetry of a poet. This might be seen with older or more well-known poetry.
Reading or hearing an explanation of a poem from a peer, like in a classroom setting where the meaning of a poem is being discussed.
Getting these perspectives can have value for a reader when they try to understand what a poem means.
First, a reader gets an outside perspective. They can read an explanation of a poem from someone else’s point of view. Through this, they might discover symbolism and meaning that they might not have found or thought about on their own.
Second, if the reader is reading an explanation of a poem from someone with a good deal of experience writing about poetry, such as a poetry reviewer might have, they can not only get a different perspective on the meaning of the poem, they might get a more skilled one. If a person regularly writes about poetry, they might develop skills in its interpretation. A reader can benefit from this, in addition to the outside perspective.
Third, an explanation from someone else might help a reader enhance their own explanation of a poem. A reader can take what others say about a poem, combine it with what they may have thought on their own, and develop a fuller explanation of a poem. A reader can also combine multiple outside explanations of a poem for this same benefit.
While outside perspectives on poetry can be beneficial, they have some downsides.
First, they can influence how a reader reads a poem. When a reader reads an explanation of a poem, they might have trouble reading and understanding the poem “cleanly”. They might have trouble seeing and interpreting the poem without the explanation they read in the back of their mind. They might have trouble seeing it without that perspective influencing what they think.
Second, reading an outside perspective of a poem might influence a reader not to explain the poem for themselves. They might feel that since they read an explanation, there isn’t as much reason to think of the poem’s meaning on their own. This can mean that a reader misses out on the experience that comes from thinking about what a poem means.
When it comes to understanding poetry, there are a number of perspectives. A reader can read an author’s explanation, someone else’s or develop their own. All of the perspectives have benefits and downsides.
If a reader wants to get the most from understanding poetry, they might be best served by combining the perspectives.
A reader could read a poem and think about what it means for themselves. After that, if available, they could read an explanation of the poem from someone else. This might exist already for more well-known poetry. If there isn’t an explanation available, a reader could find a peer to read the poem and give their perspective. Finally, again if available, a reader could read the author’s perspective on the poem. Obviously this exists for many of the poems on this blog, as well as those in M. Sakran’s eBook. It might also exists for other poems depending on what the authors did. A reader might be able to find a book where an author explains their poetry, they might find some explanation of poems on things like blogs, or they might find explanations of poems in author interviews.
If a reader combines their own perspective, outside perspectives and author perspectives on poetry they can learn more about poetry interpretation, how to read poetry and how to write it. When they put the perspectives together they can see poems in a way that they may not have with just one perspective. In a way the perspectives can be more together than they were apart.
If a reader combines perspectives on poetry meaning, they can come to a fuller understanding of poetry and a better appreciation for it.