We humans are programmed to find meaning in everything. We find patterns where none exist. We look for hidden messages in works of art. We yearn for meaning, especially when something doesn’t immediately make sense.
Of course, art is open to interpretation, and some of the best works of art have produced a fountain of ideas about what they mean. From the nonsensical children’s story Alice in Wonderland to the complex historical fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire (aff links), we wonder what a story means — what it’s really about, at its core.
Poetry is no exception. When we come across an abstract or vague poem, we look for meaning in it. We might even impose meaning on it.
Finding Meaning in Abstract Poetry
The literary canon is home to countless poems with abstract meaning. One of my favorites is “anyone lived in a pretty how town” by E.E. Cummings. Here’s an excerpt:
anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn’t he danced his did.
Whenever I read this poem, I see a lot of imagery: bells; the changing of the seasons; people; the sun, stars, and moon. Phrases like “up so floating many bells down” are enigmatic. Cummings takes great liberty with grammar and punctuation, using all lowercase letters and eliminating spaces in some lines, which intensifies the poem’s ambiguity.
But what does it all mean? I can’t be sure. This uncertainty imbibes the poem with a sense of wonder. Each time I read it, the meaning changes ever so slightly. It’s almost an ethereal experience to revisit the poem every couple of years to see what it will be like this time.
Maybe Cummings had a particular idea in mind when he wrote this poem, or maybe he wasn’t sure what he was trying to say. Maybe the poem has no meaning and it’s just a nonsensical romp through language and imagery. I don’t think any of that matters. What matters is the act of Cummings writing the poem and the experience we get from reading it. With a poem like this, each reader will have a different experience. That’s quite a gift — one poem that can mean different things to different people.
Vague Meaning in Poetry
A poem’s meaning can be vague without being abstract or nonsensical. Consider this excerpt from “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by,And that has made all the difference.
It’s one of the most famous poems in world, and the lines above are often quoted and interpreted to promote individualism: think for yourself; be your own person; forge your own path. But an earlier stanza says that both roads are equally traveled:
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;Though as for that the passing thereHad worn them really about the same…
Did the poet really take the road less traveled? Were both roads equally traveled and only in later tellings of his adventures did one become less traveled than the other? Did the poet believe the roads were equally traveled until the journey was completed? Is the narrator unreliable?
Although the poem is often interpreted to promote individualism, we never learn whether taking the road less traveled turned out to be a good or bad decision. What was the outcome? Readers are left to draw their own conclusions.
Meaning Can Be Clear or Nonexistent
Plenty of poems make their meaning clear. Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” comes to mind (excerpt):
Because I could not stop for Death –He kindly stopped for me –The Carriage held but just Ourselves –And Immortality.
The poet then takes a carriage ride with Death, ending their tour at a gravesite. The poem is clearly a statement on mortality and an examination of the big question: what happens after we die? There’s nothing ambiguous or cryptic about this poem. It might prompt you to contemplate the inevitable, but it’s not likely to confuse you or take on new meaning each time you read it.
Meaning in Poetry Writing
Meaning isn’t only found in the act of reading (and re-reading) poetry. Sometimes we start writing a poem with one idea in mind, but by the time we reach the end of the first draft, another idea or theme has emerged, maybe even something surprising or profound. Other times, we might write a poem and realize years later that there are layers of meaning in it; perhaps our subconscious produced something we weren’t aware of at the time the poem was composed.
The very act of writing poetry opens us to the meaning of our experiences and ideas, especially if we’re willing to give up control when we write and let ideas and words flow freely.
Freewriting is an ideal practice for generating enigmatic raw writing material. Sometimes a freewrite produces nothing but junk. Other times a freewrite contains a few captivating phrases, an interesting rhyme, or an unusual idea. Occasionally, if we’re lucky (and do a lot of freewrites), something almost magical emerges: a piece of writing — perhaps abstract, or maybe vague, possibly clear — worth polishing and sharing with others.
Analyzing poetry is always a good exercise for the mind, and searching for meaning is certainly an important part of poetry analysis. We cannot always know if we’ve inferred the correct meaning of a poem — or at least the meaning the author intended — but perhaps that doesn’t matter. If ten people come away from a poem with ten different interpretations, do we think a poem has failed to communicate clearly, or has it done something remarkable — provided ten different experiences from one source?
How often do you find yourself searching for deeper meaning in the poems you read? When you write poetry, how important is it that there’s a deeper meaning? Do you ever write a poem and later discover hidden meaning within it?
Excellent thoughts on some famous poems. Especially the Robert Frost one, the previous lines are so little known!
It’s a fun one to pick apart.
Melissa, your post makes me want to read more poetry and possibly explore learning to write it. I shy away from poetry because I don’t understand most of it and get frustrated. Do you have any recommendations for poetry books or collections for newbies?
I don’t think you really need to understand poetry at first. I recommend exploring poetry with an open mind. It’s kind of like music. If you listen to enough of it, eventually you’ll come across a song that resonates with you. As you listen to more and more songs, you gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for a wider range of music.
It’s almost impossible to recommend a collection for newbies, because so much will depend on your personal taste. To get started, you can visit the Poetry Foundation and poets.org online, where you can peruse thousands of poems online, for free. I also personally love Rattle for some more contemporary works. I would encourage you to purchase books of poetry once you get a sense of your tastes and preferences. This helps to support poets and it’s also beneficial to explore a single poets’ repertoire.
With regard to books on writing poetry, Perrine’s Sound and Sense is pricey but the most comprehensive book I know. The Practice of Poetry is more affordable and introductory and maybe a better starting place.
I wish you the best of luck. And hey, don’t be afraid to dive in. I spontaneously started writing poetry at thirteen with no idea what I was doing. Give yourself room to experiment, take risks, and write some bad poems. With practice, they’ll get better and better.
I liked a lot this poetry text. I write poems in my mother tongue Finnish, but, because there are no such blogs with writing prompts, analyzes and ideas, I follow your blog. Thanks for writing it!
You’re welcome. Thanks for sharing your comment, Johanna.
Your web address is the top one that came up when I looked for meaning in poetry. I write poetry in 3-dimensions – 4 Haiku all share same middle line form poetic cube in 3D space, outside 5 syllable lines show unexpected meaning only when seen in virtual space. Person I met in Starbucks this morning was surprised that poetry lines should have more than one meaning and that your writing should thus be more precise. Thanks for your discussion in “Writing Forward”, I feel a lot better now about poetry having multiple meanings dependent upon each reader’s interpretation.
That sounds interesting, Mike! I’m glad you found your way to Writing Forward and hope you find some other good articles while you’re here.
A really really good read! The nuisanced differences you delineated between the abstraction or vagueness and the embedded meaning or free interpretation of a poem come significantly with thoughts for readers to analyze poetry differently.
You have opened up a new world for me! I am a retired engineer whose life has been math and science. Thank you very much!!
Thank you for this excellent article and your thoughts!
Thank you, Melissa, for showing me whole new ways of looking at, interpreting poetry.
You’re welcome. Thanks for your comment.
The deeper meaning comes from how the reader interprets the poetry. It takes an excellent writer to write poetry with mental images that can travel in many directions. Terrific post!