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.