Poetry and Meaning, and Can a Poem Just Be?

archibald-macleish-quote-a-poem-should-not-mean-but-be“What exactly does this poem mean?”

That’s the question someone just posted today on one of my YouTube readings from more than a year and a half ago. I’m glad those readings still get attention. I was recording a poem a day during National Poetry Month for a couple of years there, and between that and other random readings I have something like 50+ poetry readings on SoundCloud and 150 on the Tube. So it’s nice to be reminded of poems I liked like this one by Tony Hoagland.

Strange aside: I was thinking this morning how my friends from Northern Ireland might have the pleasure of seeing the ornamental pear trees on my street in full bloom when they come to visit in April. How fortuitous that this poem came to my attention today, in which the video contains both scenes from the trees in my neighborhood (not dogwoods, as in the poem, but close as I could get), and the trees and scenes along the road near the North Coast of Ireland where we last traveled in 2011.

I’ll give you the recording first and then my response to Mike’s question after.

My slightly edited response to Mike’s question:

I’m trying to think of how to answer your question without sounding enigmatic, or worse, pedantic. Archibald MacLeish said, “A poem should not mean, but be.” That might not be helpful, as the meaning and being is made up of the words in the poem, and if it works for you, it works. If it doesn’t it might be a failure in the reading or in the writing.

“What does it mean to you?” is a question that you probably won’t find helpful either, but its point is that you have to find in the poem what is there for you to find. I am guessing that at least you heard something in the words that intrigued you, pulled you in? That’s good. Let it do that. There isn’t always hidden meaning to find. Much of the time it is what the poem says, the emotions it evokes, the new paths that the metaphors might set your thoughts traveling down.

When a poem strikes me as having some significance that I cannot quite pinpoint, I like to spend time with it. Get to know its lines, it’s rhymes and sounds, it’s similes, etc. Usually that’s how the poem reveals itself to me, when I’ve slowed down enough to actually pay attention to it. I like how Billy Collins in his “Introduction to Poetry” says that you have to walk around a poem’s room and “feel its walls for a light switch.”

But I can tell you a bit about what this poem means to me. The poet tries to dismiss the idea of everything in a poem meaning something, that bit about the road: “that doesn’t mean the road is an allegory,” he says. But he is probably being tricksy and putting that thought in our heads, thus making it a metaphor for whatever we need it to be.

It’s that dogwood at the end of the poem, “losing its mind.” It keeps “making beauty, and throwing it away.” Isn’t that what we do? The relationships, the good moments that we fail to treasure, like that dinner at the beginning that he says he was boring during. Missed opportunities? And yet, there are more opportunities ahead, no? Because the tree doesn’t just make beauty and throw it away, it keeps “making more.” For me, that’s what this poem is about, despite what we have wasted, or ignored, there is always more beauty ahead. And maybe the beauty seems to have no purpose. Maybe the beauty is the purpose?

Does that help? What kind of thoughts does the poem bring up for you? I bet you can get even more out of it. Thanks for the comment. I’m eager to see what your response is.

Here again is the text:

“A Color of the Sky”
by Tony Hoagland

Windy today and I feel less than brilliant,
driving over the hills from work.
There are the dark parts on the road
when you pass through clumps of wood
and the bright spots where you have a view of the ocean,
but that doesn’t make the road an allegory.

I should call Marie and apologize
for being so boring at dinner last night,
but can I really promise not to be that way again?
And anyway, I’d rather watch the trees, tossing
in what certainly looks like sexual arousal.

Otherwise it’s spring, and everything looks frail;
the sky is baby blue, and the just-unfurling leaves
are full of infant chlorophyll,
the very tint of inexperience.

Last summer’s song is making a comeback on the radio,
and on the highway overpass,
the only metaphysical vandal in America has written
MEMORY LOVES TIME
in big black spraypaint letters,

which makes us wonder if Time loves Memory back.

Last night I dreamed of X again.
She’s like a stain on my subconscious sheets.
Years ago she penetrated me
but though I scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed,
I never got her out,
but now I’m glad.

What I thought was an end turned out to be a middle.
What I thought was a brick wall turned out to be a tunnel.
What I thought was an injustice
turned out to be a color of the sky.

Outside the youth center, between the liquor store
and the police station,
a little dogwood tree is losing its mind;

overflowing with blossomfoam,
like a sudsy mug of beer;
like a bride ripping off her clothes,

dropping snow white petals to the ground in clouds,

so Nature’s wastefulness seems quietly obscene.
It’s been doing that all week:
making beauty,
and throwing it away,
and making more.

“A Color of the Sky” from What Narcissism Means to Me. Copyright © 2003 by Tony Hoagland.
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5 thoughts on “Poetry and Meaning, and Can a Poem Just Be?

    • I see your point. There is a lot of rambling through specifics, temporal rather than timeless stuff in the beginning, which along with the non-allegory statement about the road, I think is supposed to intrigue us but throw us off track until the universal smacks us in the face with the dogwood tree at the end. That’s where the universal comes in for me, the throwing off of beauty, over and over again, the seeming waste of it, only for the act of beauty to repeat itself. Nature does this. I think the poem is saying that we do too. But I can see how that can be subjective; the distractions may be too much and it might not work for some. It did work for me.

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  1. So interesting, that question. I love how you answer it. The Collin’s quote about finding the light switch is great too.

    Funny, I’d been reading poetry in some lit journals I subscribe to and getting really depressed. Most I did not enjoy at all and only a couple mildly. Some looked like a lot of work. Like they were trying to say something, but needed my help to do so. Like they were being deliberately obtuse. Like they wanted me to unpack them, without giving me any inspiration to do so. I just didn’t want to put that much effort into it.

    I started thinking about why some poetry just lights up all the circuits in my head, and others do nothing, or worse, suck all the energy from my body, like they are asking more from me than I am willing to give. I just don’t want to work that hard at poetry. I want to feel something significant going on, I want it to light up certain portions of my brain. I want images to snap or pop or sway or melt. I don’t want to have to look too long for that light switch. I want to be reading along, engaged, and trip over that switch by accident. Then, when that light switch goes on, then going back and mining the poem for every delicious morsel is a treat I enjoy. Then I love to try to ferret out meaning. But the joy (or some elemental emotion) must come first.

    Hoagland’s poem did that. Reading it, my mind was doing a happy dance. Those lines at the end about making beauty and throwing it away–they will feed and energize me (emotionally, intellectually, spiritually) all day. That’s what I want poetry to do.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. What a fantastic response, Deborah. Thank you. I agree the promise of treasure has to be greater than the effort needed to break in to the poem. I have used the illustration of an art museum. Do you want the doors open so everyone can come in? Do you promise enough intrigue and beauty to make it worth purchasing a ticket? Or do you build high fences of electric barbed wire, surrounded by a moat? How high a wall does the poet expect her readers to scale? I prefer a poem that invites me in with an intriguing first line and as you said, surprises me along the way, makes me enjoy the first reading, but find deeper joys and beauty on successive ventures through it. Despite those who willfully make their poems obtuse as some sort of badge of cleverness on their part, accessible need not be a dirty word. Accessible does not mean simplistic. It only means the doors are unlocked. The promise worth the price, and the reward greater than expected.

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