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.
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 a reader gets 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 “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 there
Had 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? The reader is left to draw her 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:
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
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?