Interpreting Poetry

Many students have been taught wrongly that "a poem means whatever you think it means." Of course, this is not true. If well-written, a poem means exactly what the author of that poem "meant" to say. A student's perception of the poem does not change reality. If the student thinks that the author was trying to say one thing, when in fact the poem says something different, then the student's interpretation is incorrect. Sometimes we find a poorly written poem, one that does not allow us to know exactly what the poet was trying to say.

Poetry, like all other forms of communication, is the transference of mind and/or heart from one person to another. If the reader does not get what the poet meant, then either the reader or the poet is at fault. In either case, communication did not occur.

Does this mean that we will all get the same things OUT of a poem? Of course not. But the question is not "What did we take out of the poem?" The question is "What did we bring to the poem?" Let me illustrate.

Suppose an expectant mother writes a poem about the joy she felt when she first felt her child move inside her, and the great depression she experienced when that child was later stillborn. (Sounds like a delightful poem, doesn't it?) Imagine, now, that the following people read her poem:

You can see how different each of these people is. It is not likely--perhaps even impossible--for all to have the same experience reading this poem. Each has brought some different life experiences to the poem. Each will be moved or touched differently by the poem. But the poem still means exactly what the author said! We sometimes confuse "what the poem means to me" with "what the poem means." Do not make that mistake. We may, of course, share the impact of the poem on us. We may share why we feel the way we feel and our life experiences that make us feel that way. But if the poem does not move or touch us, we must be careful before we blame the poem as inadequate. At the same time, we need to be very careful before praising a poem as "an excellent poem" simply because it touched us. Perhaps the experience was more in us than in the poem! A poorly written poem can still evoke certain feelings, images, moods. How much more powerfully will a well-written poem touch us!

Are there standards for judging the quality of poetry? That is the poetry question of all times! It is highly unlikely that we can even agree on what those standards are, much less whether or not a specific poem meets those standards. In this course we will try to find ways to express meaning through imagery, style, voice, theme--and who knows what else--in our poetry. We will explore how best to stir with our words the feelings of another's life experiences. We will explore how best to express our own life's experiences.

And if we are fortunate, the two may meet!