In the past I was irritated by being asked what a poem means. The irritation sprang from impatience. A poem, to me, is the most direct way to articulate something for which there are no other words. To explain it in other words is, in a sense, to lose what it means, which is not only an intellectual quality but an emotional one carried by the rhythms and phonetics of those exact words. However, I no longer find it an irritation but rather an important question because I understand more fully what meaning itself is.
Meaning is the definition of a relationship. Meaning is not just what something is in a vacuum but what it is in a universe of interactions and interconnections. Those interactions and interconnections are meaning. Think of the implication of saying to someone, “You mean so much to me.” The idea is that there are a multiplicity of connections you have to the person, significances that resonate across time and space and tie your lives together. This idea of meaning applies to every kind of relationship, i.e., to people, to nature, to society, to family, to friends, to God, to every jot and tittle of which you take notice. Our meanings, our definitions are our relationships and they make up our identity and our culture.
When someone asks “what does a poem mean?” they are asking really what are the relationships it is defining? It is precisely at this place that the important conversations can occur, because how those relationships or meanings contrast with our own are a clear opening to dialogue. They can provide a way to enlighten and make connections. This is how poetry, literature, and art in general can bridge gaps. We may agree or disagree with a poem’s definitions, feel they are outdated, or find they open our eyes to the realities of others. It is not only how we might learn from “Musée des Beaux Arts” that suffering is common or from “One Art” that the loss of a loved one is an art no one masters, but it is the consequences in the reader of what he considers. So a white, suburban-born male might learn from Langston Hughes’ poem “Who But the Lord?” that his relationship to the police is very different from an African American’s. Or he might learn from N. Scott Momaday that the American government is sometimes selective in who has freedom of religion. These realizations can come by discussing what a poem means, and those realizations might lead to a desire to change the way things are, a desire to expand the range of our humanity and expand the inclusion of our society, edge our society’s flawed image of itself a little closer to its ideal. In this way, poetry can make something happen.