“This piece is a poem, so there’s no way of telling the real meaning….”

Another student who knows the truth of poetry: it’s impossible to understand. This sentence doesn’t take a side in the debate between “too many possible meanings to be sure” and “nothing but symbols that you have to wait for a teacher to explain.” But it’s still enough for a lover of poetry to realize that many students seem to think it’s some kind of secret code. Where can you possibly begin?

“The rose stands for Love.” “But it’s red, so it stands for Sex.” “How do you know it’s red? It might be white, for pure love…” “Because the writer SAYS it’s red.” “Oh, okay. Sex, then. So is THAT what he means by ‘Thou art sick’? Sex is SICK? Wow.” “No, that guy doesn’t say the rose is red. The OTHER one says ‘red, red rose.'” And there you have it: comparative literature.

I am sympathetic. Some poems strike a reader—even a seasoned and devoted reader of poetry—as obscure or dauntingly dense. But the student permitted to think of imagery, even symbolism, as a kind of code has nowhere to go in ANY real poem, where abstract concepts resonate within real things and thereby simultaneously shape and participate in the invitation into revelation that the poem as a whole offers. To read the images one at a time like code, substitutions in a secret sentence, leads only to further confusion. If you read a poem this way, yes, you’ll probably wind up agreeing with my student that “there’s no way of telling the real meaning.” Even if “meaning” is pluralized, that student is giving up in bafflement.

Well, I guess that’s a reason for hiring teachers, isn’t it? What a shame for the reader to cede such power.

About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

5 responses to ““This piece is a poem, so there’s no way of telling the real meaning….”

  • Mary Jane Schaefer

    When I was still teaching, I ran into this kind of thing from students. I don’t know if this is a fair representation of what was being done to them, or simply how they UNDERSTOOD the process. Apparently, in high school,
    literary discussions were often based on the game of “guess what the teacher thinks the symbol means.” The right guess got you the good grade. How much teaching like this was going on I can’t say. But there were a lot of students who were playing this game. I wonder, though, if they had had greater reading experience, they might have had more confidence to explore possible “leads” in the hunt. Reading develops skills on so many levels, but it takes concentration. Right now, in Covid quarantine, my instinct is to reach out to “processed” experiences on the computer, or tv, or a DVD, because I think the general stress is depleting my ability to concentrate enough to read anything of substance.

    • RAB

      Yes, I had a teacher in high school who was determined to help us find the “real” meaning of poems. Luckily I also had a couple who had a different idea; and when I got to college I was expected to work things out for myself (which included reading scholarship if I was so inclined, of course). But just as I could spend a high-energy hour or so working out Latin passages with my classmate Joyce on the phone back in high school, I learned to find working with a literary text challenging and rewarding. Some poets still defeat me, I admit! But most are ready to offer me an intellectual “conversation” if I’m Willing to put in the time and intellectual energy. I fear that teachers who know the “answer” and guide their students to find it are teaching them to be dependent on teachers and impatient with complex writers. My inspiration is my college theater director, David Brubaker, who opened the first rehearsal of a production with “If you’re here to have fun, maybe you should go home. You only get to the fun once you’ve put in the work. Usually a show starts to really be fun around the second performance.” And I have found that he’s right…except that I think the hard work is also fun!

  • Lechfisch

    That wonderful little piece should in itself become part of the curriculum … cue student-friendly intros to semiotics, associative constructions of meaning, rhetorical devices, musicality in language, wherever you want to go …

  • Modwyn

    Thank you for so aptly describing the frustration of teaching poetry. As a poet and English teacher, I encounter these ideas so much. It’s discouraging to think how people are invested in the myth that poetry is hard, unapproachable, and only for smart, esoteric people. We do not listen to music and say, “I”ll only appreciate it when I konw what each note means.”

    • RAB

      Apt comparison! Of course there are also the listeners who can’t just let themselves experience jazz, but want to know what IT “means” before deciding if they like it….And I have to admit that for some (wasted!) years I was one of those people….

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