Don’t know what a poem means? Not sure if you’re interpreting it right? Well, let me let you in on a little insider secret: the poem means whatever you believe it means.
Maybe a poem doesn’t “mean” anything to you. That’s ok, too. Not all poets are striving to make literal sense. Maybe the poem made you feel something, but you don’t know why. Maybe the way the poet arranged three words in a line was so surprising that it gave you a new idea for your own wordplay. Regardless of what the writer of that poem may have intended, it becomes something uniquely yours in your hands.
That said, it’s important to keep in mind that there will not always be something for us to love or admire in the poems we read. Sometimes a poem will mean nothing to you and offer no particular delight or revelation of any kind. This comes with the territory. Just as you probably don’t enjoy every person you’ve ever met, not every poem you encounter is likely to click with you, either.
Chances are good that along the way, you’ll write a poem or two or more that you don’t understand (or couldn’t explain) yourself. When I am writing a poem that doesn’t make literal sense to me, I think of how Michelangelo described his process of discovering the shape of a sculpture that awaited him as he chipped away at his marble block. I believe that there is some truth that exists whole, and when I get a glimmer of such a possibility, I strive to find its shape in words. This requires a very different kind of knowing and trust. Like groping my way in the dark and deciding which structures feel as if they will hold my weight.
Maybe the most difficult thing about poetry is the fact that there is no definitive right and wrong way to write it and no single, universal way to interpret individual poems. There is no authority beyond ourselves to confirm that we’ve arrived and that we did it right. Not-knowing (when writing or reading a poem) is the point at which many people throw in the towel and decide poetry is just too difficult.
However, I’d like to propose that in the realm of poetry, there is no failure in the absence of an absolute. Not-knowing offers a kind of limitless potential. Poetry has taught me that life and language can be far more meaningful when we get beyond the strictures of literal meaning into the endlessly possible place where poems live!
* Find a poem you don’t understand- preferably one you have never liked. Find three things to admire about it, whether it be the sound of a phrase, the quality of an image or a line break choice.
* Write a poem that imitates something about this poem that you don’t understand. Don’t worry about writing a comprehensible narrative. Just have fun with the language and see where it leads you.
* Wait at least a few days. Then revisit both poems- the one you found and the one you wrote- and decide what each of them means to you. You don’t have to be sure. There’s no right or wrong. Your own interpretation is your exact truth.
Sage Cohen is the author of Writing the Life Poetic: An Invitation to Read and Write Poetry (Writers Digest Books, 2009) and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. An award-winning poet, she writes three monthly columns about the craft and business of writing and serves as Poetry Editor for VoiceCatcher 4. Her poetry and essays appear in journals and anthologies including Cup of Comfort for Writers, The Oregonian, Oregon Literary Review, Greater Good and VoiceCatcher. Sage holds an MA in creative writing from New York University, co-hosts a monthly reading series at Barnes & Noble and teaches the online class Poetry for the People. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and awarded a Soapstone residency. To learn more, visit www.writingthelifepoetic.com.