by Dr. David B. Axelrod
The poet John Ashbury once said “I don’t know what it means when I write it and I don’t care what it means when I am done.” He is regarded as a language poet–and I really don’t like his writing, though I see the craft of his creations. I, myself, measure the success of my own writing by how purely I have communicated what I had in mind when I wrote. That’s why writing workshops are so useful if people engage in them honestly and correctly. You get a range of interpretations so you can see if the words you picked meant what you expected when people read the work.
So, I say, when reading poetry, first read all the words–only the words that are there on the page in the poem. Then decide what all the words in a row are actually, literally, saying. Don’t bring anything else to the poem except your use of the language. If there is a word, a term, a reference that clearly, you don’t know, then the ideal reader–you–will take a moment to look up that word or detail. If no definition or clarification is forth-coming, then the poet may have “lost out” on that chance to communicate. Your job is to make sense of the words on the page without introducing the author’s life, outside critical sources, historical or any other details that are not actually word-for-word within the poems.
It isn’t what you think it means. It is how well you can read the words themselves to see what the author actually meant. But you aren’t a mind reader, after all. So of course it does come down to you “creating” a meaning from the poem as you read it–from the first time through to as many times through as you may feel the poem warrants for you to decide what the author wishes to communicate to you.
It follows that, if you begin with the notion that the words are not trying to say what the author means, then the way I’ve described reading a poem is irrelevant. If the author doesn’t intend to communicate, then just look at, listen to, read through the words and let them affect you in any way you wish. Ashbury uses words in ways words aren’t often used and even if you don’t understand him (and he doesn’t care) you may like the way it sounds. Lyricists, in fact, often care more for the music–the sound–than meaning. And certainly poets who use experimental language, or just play with words and typography, are there to enjoy.
But I think if you can’t trust a poem to say what it means–directly–then that could explain why so many people have no place for poetry. They don’t like having to figure it out and they like it less that they are made fools of with word games. We call contracts that work that way fraud.