What kinds of meanings do poems present to us? What does meaning mean? (There are two ways to read that question.) In the entry “Meaning, Problem of” (whose title is almost a poem in itself) in the (old) Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, author Murray Krieger writes that “especially worrisome is the use of this word in reference to the peculiar kind of symbols employed in poetic discourse. For purposes of economy we shall simply restrict ‘meaning’ to its primitive sense which concerns the reference of verbal symbols and their syntactic relations to the outside world of things and their real relations. This limitation will immediately dismiss that perhaps eccentric sense of ‘meaning,’ in somewhat common usage of late in poetics, which would treat only the aesthetic, intramural coherence among the words of a literary work in accordance with the internal consistency of their closed system of interrelations” (476). With the exception of that “only,” it is exactly this “perhaps eccentric” sense that interests me. It may be just as well that Krieger dismisses it: that leaves me free to discourse upon, around, and beside it.
In his poem "Ars Poetica," Archibald MacLeish famously wrote, in lines that violate their own dictum, “A poem should not mean/But be.” I would amend that to say that a poem should mean by being, that it should be an embodiment and not just the vehicle of meaning. Being and embodiment are kinds of meaning. We are each alive on this earth, after all, and what do I mean, what do you mean? We mean ourselves and everything that we are. Similarly, the poem means itself, though as an object and event in the world it can incorporate and respond to other objects and events in the world (nothing exists in isolation). MacLeish also wrote that “A poem should be palpable and mute/As a globed fruit.” That bodily quality is something I look for in others’ poems and strive for in my own.
As T.S. Eliot writes, “If poetry is a form of ‘communication,’ yet that which is to be communicated is the poem itself, and only incidentally the experience and the thought which have gone into it” (from The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, excerpted in Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot, edited by Frank Kermode, 80). The poem “has a reality which is not simply the reality of what the writer is trying to ‘express,’ or of his experience of writing it, or of the experience of the reader or of the writer as reader. Consequently the problem of what a poem ‘means’ is a good deal more difficult than it at first appears” (Ibid.).
In this regard I am at least partially an heir to the Romantic poetics of Coleridge (though without his confidence that the real and its figures can “exactly coincide”), as opposed to or at least distinct from the mimetic aesthetics of Plato and Sir Philip Sidney: for me, meaning in poems is organic, not propositional. I am an adherent of the idea of what Cleanth Brooks called “presentational meaning”: the poem is an experience in itself, not a statement about experience (though statements can certainly be part of the experience that is the poem). “Meaning in this sense of the term is made up, mediately or immediately, of all that appears, no matter how great or small its importance” (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory 218).
In his “Adagia,” Wallace Stevens writes that “There is no wing like meaning” (Collected Poetry and Prose 903). (Thanks to Mark Granier for reminding me of this quote.) This posits meaning not as an end but as a means: a wing is something with which one travels, which takes one somewhere else. Given that poems are so often seen as vessels of meaning, it’s interesting that this aphorism makes meaning the vehicle, not the destination.
In The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, T.S. Eliot goes even further, writing that “The chief use of the ‘meaning’ of a poem, in the ordinary sense, may be (for I am speaking of some kinds of poetry and not all) to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him: much as the imaginary burglar is always provided with a bit of nice meat for the house-dog. This is a normal situation of which I approve. But the minds of all poets do not work that way; some of them, assuming that there are other minds like their own, become impatient of this ‘meaning’ which seems superfluous, and perceive possibilities of intensity through its elimination…a great deal, in the way of meaning, belongs to prose rather than to poetry” (op. cit. 93). I don’t think that it’s as easy to eliminate meaning as Eliot implies. It’s in our nature to invest objects and events with meaning, especially human products, all of which are suffused with human intention. We cannot look with a disinterested cold eye on anything humans have made. As Adorno reminds us, “Art continues to live up to the postulate of meaning even though it rigorously negates it" (Aesthetic Theory 221). It’s the nature of that meaning that interests me.
Someone recently asked me what one of my poems meant, and I realized that I had never thought about it. I rarely think about what my poems mean, though I often wish to get at something in and with them, to do something by means of them. But that something is part of the experience of the poem, not a gloss on or an explanation of it.
When I am writing a poem, I think about the clarity of the images and the precision and accuracy of the phrasing. I think about the music of words in relation and the rhythms of the phrases, the aural shape of the poem as a whole. I think about the feeling I want the poem to embody, or the feeling that the poem wants to embody. But I rarely think about a paraphrasable meaning, of how I would explicate the poem.
“What an artist has to say is said through figuration; it is never a message carried by figuration” (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory 216). T.S. Eliot was once asked what he meant by the line “Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree,” from “Ash Wednesday,” to which he replied, “I meant, ‘Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree.’” While he was doubtlessly being a bit recalcitrant, he was emphasizing that a poem’s meaning isn’t under or over or even inside its words. It is those words, and the experience of reading them. There are three white leopards under a juniper tree, or at least their verbal simulacrum. If Eliot had wanted you to see or imagine something else, he would have written something else. Even if those leopards are symbolic, they must first be themselves before they can stand in for anything else. To adapt Hugh Kenner’s words to a quite different sense, “has anyone…ever suspected how many lines of Ash-Wednesday [sic] simply meant what they said?...Nothing is so unbelievable as exact truth told in a calm voice” (The Pound Era 277).
While I don’t often think about what a poem, either my own or someone else’s, means, I do think about what’s happening in the poem. Terry Eagleton has written that Eliot wasn’t concerned with what a poem said, but with what it did. And W.H. Auden called poetry a way of happening.
My poems aren’t puzzles to be solved; they don’t have hidden meanings waiting to be uncovered. If a poem is conceived of as a puzzle or a riddle, then once you’ve discovered the key, once you’ve worked out the puzzle, you’re finished with the poem and can get on with your life. That’s not how I approach poems. Perhaps because so many poets, and almost all literary critics, teach, spending their days explaining things, we too often approach poems as problems to be figured out, rather than as experiences to be explored and enjoyed. Pleasure is often left out of consideration, if not actively denigrated. Charles Bernstein, for example, seems to distrust pleasure; his notion of the anti-absorptive seems like a prophylactic to ward off the possibility of being taken in or seduced, of succumbing to the opiate of the literary masses. In this regard what might be called literary leftists resemble too many political leftists: pleasure is regarded with suspicion, and life is just a set of necessary tasks. I recently shared a panel on difficulty in poetry with Robert Collins, co-editor of The Birmingham Poetry Review, on which he pointed out that, though Horace said that poetry should instruct and delight, much experimental poetry insists on instruction to the detriment of delight. I read poems because I like them, not because they’re good for me, though they might well be. If a poem doesn’t give pleasure on a certain level, including the pleasure of being engagingly challenged and surprised, then who cares what it means?
Sometimes when reading a poem I’ll wonder about a line or a phrase, “What the hell does this mean?” (What gives me the most trouble is syntactical difficulty: if I can’t follow the syntax, can’t make sense of the words’ relations to one another, I’m lost.) But that’s usually on the level of literal statement—“What’s being said?”—not the level of interpretation—“What’s the significance of what’s being said?” Explicative and interpretative difficulty are often conflated or confused. When we speak of the meaning of a poem or any utterance, we can be referring to two different things: the literal sense, and the way in which that utterance is intended to be taken. It’s important to be clear about which is which in any given case. If one asks someone about a statement of theirs, “What you do mean by that?” it’s not usually because one doesn’t understand what was said, but because one doesn’t understand its significance, one doesn’t know why it was said.
Poems frame utterances, including utterances that could never be spoken by any plausible or even any imaginable speaker, thus imbuing them with significance. But the significance of an utterance may well be that it’s in a poem, that it’s a piece of language to which we’ve been asked to pay attention, to notice in the way that we don’t usually have the time or inclination to do in our everyday lives: in William Carlos Williams’ words, “This is just to say.” Poems ask us to see them as and for themselves, to see their language as not just expression or communication but as event and object. Meaning is never absent, but meaning isn’t the meaning of the poem. As Hart Crane describes his goal in “General Aims and Theories,” “It is as if the poem gave the reader as he left it a single, new word, never before spoken and impossible to actually enunciate, but self-evident as an active principle in the reader’s consciousness henceforward” (Twentieth Century American Poetics: Poets on the Art of Poetry, ed. by Dana Gioia et al., 126).