On seeking too much “meaning” when reading

Back in February of 2012, I wrote the following “response paper” for a class on form and theory of poetry.  I thought it might be worth sharing.

Don’t worry if you are unfamiliar with whom I reference or the texts I reference; the point is sharing the thoughts.

Fanny Howe says in her essay on bewilderment, “sometimes a surface reading seems to bring you closer to the intention of the poem.”  I agree very much; I believe the joy, surprise—indeed bewilderment—occurs as the poem is read literally.

I am troubled by statements like, “this poem is about [fill this in with an abstraction].”  Such statements dilute the value of the poem (and undermine the experience of reading the poem), and if the poem were sentient it would experience existential angst, wondering what the point of it is if its ‘meaning’ could be summed up in a word or phrase.

Saying instead “This poem contains a theme of” or “addresses” or “is concerned with” is better than saying, “This poem is about” or “This poem means….”  But indeed, nothing should be able to stand in the place of the poem; the poem should not be treated as reducible; the poem is the poem is the poem.

The poem resists the human tendency for classification—a form of reduction, of limitation we impose on the world with the use of language, and yes, the poem is composed of language, but the poem uses both the strengths and weaknesses of language, the strengths and weaknesses of relating things/subjects.

To say, “This poem is about [a]” or “This poem is about [b]” or “This poem is about [c]” or so on would focus on one of the things possibly evoked in the reader while reading the poem, and that focus on one thing would narrow the view of the poem and other things would be overlooked—not to mention whatever specific thing in the poem led to the idea that “This poem is about…” is replaced by this statement.

A reader’s mind that seeks “aboutness” kills the possibility of life that the poem could have had in this mind.  A reader that does not know how to find pleasure/resists finding pleasure in the experience of reading a poem and instead tries to impose specific, narrow meanings for the purpose of “understanding” the poem has an approach unfit for art.

It seems to me that a common complaint about reading poetry is, “I don’t understand it”—and this misses the point; the point of reading a poem is not to “understand it” in a conventional way, the way our casual comprehension of the world inspires us to language, to feel like one has something specific to say about something in the world, how we want to be able to say, “This is how the world is” (although we should be careful with such statements, humanity makes them anyway with the assistance of methods as varied as science and prejudices).

I prefer an epistemology different from the ‘casual comprehension’ I am alluding to…

And I suspect that it is the limitations of knowledge that help make art (indeed, at least bewilderment) possible….

Is it indeed dangerous/demeaning/damaging to the poem to identify too much meaning in a poem?  Does this depend on the poem?  Is this true for all poems?

Is a part of a poem being a poem that it reject some sense of specific, singular meaning?

How can we teach how to read a poem?  (Perhaps this is related to how can we teach how to write a poem, too….)