Dispelling a Myth about Meaning

There’s a good chance that you’re in for one of those, “Holy, sh$%&! Everything I thought I knew was wrong!” kind of semesters. For the first time in forever (yes, you’re supposed to sing that in your mind’s ear), I’m going to explain Mr. McAteer’s rule numero uno of Five Inviolable Rules of Poetry, which apply to any literary work. Of course, the fact that I’m going to explain it doesn’t mean that anyone’s going to care, but as I love the sound of my own voice (in my mind’s ear, that is – nobody I know loves the sound of their actual spoken voice), I’m pushing forward anyway.

Here’s the rule: A poem (or a book or a play) doesn’t mean anything.

What follows is, “A poem says something. Only you can make meaning.” The point is that meaning is entirely subjective. Nobody can tell you that “Poem X means blah blah blah TO YOU,” because you might not give a rat’s ass about that poem (I used the idiomatic phrase, “give a rat’s ass,” but while I understand the spirit in which it is intended, I have no idea how it works literally to convey a sort of intense disinterest). Folks love to throw the word meaning around to serve the lovely irony that makes words like meaningful meaningless. So let’s discuss meaning, and misconceptions about it, for a few moments.

If you can sum up the meaning of a work in a sentence – You’ve got to get back up on that horse. Seize the day! – then that thing you read didn’t mean anything to you. Meaning is a process, not a message, and 98% of the poems or novels that tell you a message suck. If those bromides occur to you once you’ve finished reading, you can surely say, “I have understood that poem, and it’s point to me is X, but the fact that I understand its purpose shouldn’t make you think that it means something to me.” Now, if a Carpe Diem poem like Robert Herrick’s, “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” inspires you to ask that special someone to Homecoming before it’s too late, then there is something in you that made the poem, whose purpose is generally considered universal, mean something to you at this particular moment in your life.

You may also be under the impression that meaning is something you need to be able to verbalize, or at least intellectualize. Lies! Let’s bring that special someone back into this post. You know how when he or she or they walk into the room you feel all squishy inside. You don’t sit there, knit your brow, stroke your chin, and say to the person next to you, “I felt all squishy inside because of A, B and C.” In fact, you don’t say anything at all, because you want to stop time so that feeling won’t fade away. That feeling IS meaning. When you work at something and take pride in accomplishing what you set out to do, that pride IS meaning. When you cry at a movie (or you feel like crying but suppress it, because you’re a dude, and dudes don’t cry), the emotion you felt IS meaning. In all these cases, the thing that is meaningful defies expression, and you probably cheapen it by watering down the feeling with the limited number of words at our disposal.

So what do you do as a student who is going to be responsible for writing about the things you read? Well, you think honestly about the thoughts the literature inspires in you. You record your impressions, and then you use your writing to think about the way details or patterns in the poem must have triggered those impressions. You consider the effect of sound and structure and metaphor and all those things you’re going to learn about how writers MAKE their work, and you connect what is inside you to what is in the work. And if you don’t come to some resolution…GOOD! You’re 16 or 17 years old, and you’re under no obligation to have your shi#$@ figured out. Like I said before, meaning is a process; your situation in life will change and change and change, and a poem (or story, or play) that meant X to you when you were 16 and living at home will mean something entirely different when you’re 26 and have a whole bunch of different experiences under your belt (or whatever it is that keeps your clothing from falling off your body).

The more willingness you have to explore for the sake of being a better explorer, to search for the sake of being a better searcher, the better will be your experience of this class.


Leave a Reply