But What Does the Poem Mean?

Elvis, London, Summer 2018 ©Brendon Booth-Jones

With all that is going on in the world right now, I believe that poetry is more important than ever, and I have been lucky enough to read some incredibly powerful and necessary poems in the last few weeks. And yet poetry seems to be as misunderstood as it ever was. The first question that tends to appear (to sneer) in many people’s minds when a reading a poem is: “But what does it mean?”

When I first started reading poems, I too asked that noxious little question (and was usually left stumped, frustrated, and sometimes just feeling that maybe I wasn’t smart enough to “get” poetry). Where does that question come from? Well, probably from the way we are taught poetry at school. We might spend thirteen hellishly dull weeks in ninth grade interrogating one of Shakespeare’s sonnets line by line, wringing every molecule of possible meaning (and obliterating every atom of joy) from the poem, and this experience is enough to put us off for life, to make us shudder at even the mention of the word poetry. The teaching of poetry in schools is not the topic of this essay; it is a broad and complex question that deserves its own essay or book. Let me just say in passing that there are many passionate, dedicated teachers who do an admirable job of teaching literature in school, and they are a huge part of the reason that poetry continues to flourish in the world, in spite of its niche status. But there is no doubt that most people leave school never wanting to look at rhyme scheme or personification ever again.

I too left school feeling that way. I actually attempted to burn my books in my backyard after my high school graduation, but I lived in Port Elizabeth, affectionately known as The Windy City, and it was howling such a gale that day I couldn’t get the fire started, and eventually gave up and trudged back inside pathetically, feeling that both Romeo and Juliet were haughtily sniggering at me from inside the thick inflammable volume of Mandatory Reading.

After Christmas, France, 2016 ©Brendon Booth-Jones

But maybe they were just giggling at the irony, foretelling that years later I’d come scuttling back in search of their rose-entwined laments. Because I did come running back to literature. How that came about is a topic for another day. But over the last few years, as I have become more and more immersed in, and enamoured by, poetry, many friends and strangers have asked me this question: What does your poem mean? And I have spent a lot of time thinking about what poems mean to me. And I want to share my thoughts with whoever wants to read them.

Let’s start with the question itself. “What does the poem mean?” The first thing I’m going to do is throw this question away quicker than a stale McNugget, because it is actually the wrong question to ask of a poem. Why? Well, let’s say that we could reduce poem X to the proposition life is hard. Or Capitalism is evil. Or love hurts. Does that boiled-down statement, its “meaning”, make it a good poem? Let’s compare a “love hurts” poem by Pablo Neruda[1] to the song lyrics my imaginary high school death metal band wrote. Let’s imagine my band was called Mortal Sludge, and we screamed: “Baby, my soul weeps tears of agony that would quench the fires of hell for your love”. This lyric is dripping in angsty cliché and clumsy hyperbole. It makes you cringe. Now let’s look at Neruda:

When I die I want your hands on my eyes:
I want the light and the wheat of your beloved hands
to pass their freshness over me one more time
to feel the smoothness that changed my destiny.

Neruda’s stanza is quiet, reflective, deeply intimate yet utterly universal, and wrenchingly sad. We could say these lyrics both mean “love hurts”, but obviously Neruda’s poem is more refined in every sense. So: “What does the poem mean?” is the wrong question. I believe that “What does the poem do?” is a more useful question. Neruda’s poem moves me to tears. Other questions to ask of a poem are: How does the poem surprise me? Does it make something familiar seem strange and new? Does it make a weird, inexplicable experience astoundingly relatable? Does it buoy me, does it offer me solidarity and empathy on a personal or political level? Does it make music out of the mundane? Does it crack open cliché, make tired language fresh and invigorating?

Lucas wanders, Malaysia, 2014 ©Brendon Booth-Jones

The American poet, Matthew Zapruder[2], makes a profound analogy about language. He says that language is like paint. You can use it to paint your house or your door or your floor. But you can also use the exact same material to paint a Van Gogh or a Picasso.

When Zapruder says you can paint a house with language, he is referring to the utility of language. All day long we exchange emails, texts and tweets, we read news headlines, lecture slides, advertising slogans, instruction manuals; we ask for coffee, hand sanitizer, directions. Language is the cable that connects our inner life to the world. It is our most vital means of exchange.

But when Zapruder mentions using language to paint a Picasso, he is alluding to whole other dimensions of language. Words are like layers of rock from which the remnants of fallen empires and fossilized dinosaurs can be excavated: words come down to us through hundreds, sometimes thousands of years of usage, from myriad different languages, cultures and fields of discourse. In each word is embedded the ghosts of earlier meanings, the musicality of phonetics, not to mention the associations to memories and personal experiences we may have had, as well as a word’s relationality.

Berlin Wall 2015 ©Brendon Booth-Jones

The Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure[3], posits that language is relational: if I ask you what the word light means, you will probably say: “It is not dark”. What is dry? It is not wet. Or, what is a palm tree? It is not an oak; it is not a willow. The traces of opposite meanings, and other semantic relations, are inherent in the words we use, hidden just beneath the surface of the conscious. These dimensions of language, the relationality of words, personal associations (which differ for each of us), the sometimes bloody spectres of a word’s history, these aspects of language actually get in our way when we are just trying to impress that person on Tinder or make an excuse to our lecturer for not having done our homework.

But, thanks to the influence of poets such as the above-mentioned Matthew Zapruder, among many, many others, I have come to think of a poem as a space, a field, where language is freed from the constraints of needing to convey information, freed from the need to be efficient and tame.

Swimming in Cambodia, 2014 ©Brendon Booth-Jones

A poem is this incredibly limber, versatile form with which to give expression to feelings, sensations and thoughts that cannot easily be accessed using the mundane, everyday utility of words. A poem is a pot where these powerful associative aspects of language can simmer and bubble up in the imagination, or, as Dean Young says, a test tube where they can be shaken together and allowed to fizz and explode in a chemical reaction of music and magic. And the final product? The glittering thingamajig, the spell that tastes of laughter, the translucent flower that is created? It means itself. It is the expression of the inexplicable, the ambivalent, the uncanny. Poems take over where regular communication falters. To try and boil a poem down to the bare bones of information is to unravel the glowing strands of electrified language that make up the technicolour coat, leaving you with only the threads of trite platitudes: life is hard. Love hurts. We already knew that! But a poem has the potential to inflect the familiar world, made up of familiar words, with the enigmatic quiver of new feeling, the rush of new sensation; or old feelings elevated, old sensations given fresh life. A poem is the meeting place of language and imagination. And in this time of fear and uncertainty, with many of us under lockdown in our homes, getting bogged down in an endless reel of news headlines, data and statistics, hashtags and retweets, I think the need for us to feel elevated and reinvigorated by language is felt by many people.

Mexico, 2015 ©Brendon Booth-Jones

I am indebted to so many wondrous writers, writers who have influenced and continue to influence my poetic sensibility. Many of the ideas expressed in this piece I have absorbed from them. But perhaps my own sensibility will change in the future. I certainly hope my ideas continue to evolve as I move deeper into the experience of reading and writing poems.

You may be wondering why I haven’t touched on any formal elements of poems. There is much to be said for the way that features such as metaphor and juxtaposition can be used to shape poems, but the craft of poetry deserves its own essay; I wanted to focus on the intuitive questions we ask of poems. I also do not claim that this mini-manifesto is the definitive way to read poems. Each person creates their own experience of poetry every time they read a poem. Poetry can be a source of comfort and hope, of political resistance, a performative expression of personal identity, a howl of outrage or sorrow. A poem is a space where language can be freed to enlarge the world. A poem means itself, but that self is a unique experience for every reader.

I implore you to go and read a poem, perhaps one written by a friend, or something you came across online, or from a book gathering dust on the shelf, and be freed from the burden asking: “What does the poem mean?”, and trust your mind to interact with the dynamic resonance of the poem, to paint a Picasso of language and imagination, to be moved.

Renier spinning fire, South Africa, 2017 ©Brendon Booth-Jones


[1] The full Pablo Neruda poem, titled “When I die I want your Hands on My Eyes” can be found at https://www.familyfriendpoems.com/poem/when-i-die-i-want-your-hands-on-my-eyes-by-pablo-neruda

[2] From the Life of a Poet Series: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WH7ShZTahTA

[3] From Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory by Peter Barry


4 thoughts on “But What Does the Poem Mean?

  1. I’ve always found that language falls short when trying to convey thoughts and emotions, as well as the more nebulous concepts out there. I’m reminded of a quote by Hermann Hesse: “Words do not express thoughts very well. They always become a little different immediately after they are expressed, a little distorted, a little foolish. And yet it also pleases me and seems right that what is of value and wisdom to one man seems nonsense to another.”
    Words may be inadequate, but poetry and music are currently the best means we’ve come up with to be able to share our inner worlds with each other, in my humble opinion!

    1. Hi Chris, thanks for taking the time to read my piece, and for sharing your thoughts! I think you’re right about music—as a medium it has that wondrous ability to bypass our intellect and resonate directly with our emotions. And I think good poems tremble on the verge of song, enable a directly interior music that harnesses the power of language and elevates it, while music gains its strength from the acoustic frequencies that are so primal and tap straight through our conscious filters, imo 🙂 —Brendon

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