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But what does it mean?

Food for Thought

It’s been well over a year since I first joined a poetry writers’ group. We call ourselves The Poetry Gang, though I’m not sure why. Possibly it’s some sort of rebellion against being stuck with a name more lofty or esoteric. I was not invited to help decide on a name for the group, and I don’t know whose brainchild it was, but I rather like it. It sounds like a group that Carl Sandburg might have joined, no nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is, frank and earnest.
Pun intended. You want to watch out for me, one of my favorite poets was a master at word-play, and so I sometimes emulate.
Each member of the group is asked to submit a poem for study each month. After we’ve had a chance to familiarize ourselves with the poems, our meetings take on a workshop format. Everybody but the poet in question takes part, in turn, in a discussion of each poem. We point out things that we particularly like about the poem, express our opinions about what the poet was striving to tell us, how well he or she managed to achieve that and speculate about any obscure or unfamiliar meanings.
Once the group has expressed its opinions, the poet is invited to say anything he or she wishes about the poem, to answer any questions, clear up any mistaken impressions, explain how the poem came about or anything else he feels the others might need to know in order to understand the poem. Quite often the poet will accept a suggestion to improve or otherwise change a poem, though we all know that, as Paul Valery pointed out, a poem is never finished, only abandoned. I find myself undoing some of the changes I may have made in the past, and maybe redoing them even later. And that is part of the reason we write poetry, I think.
You see, I’ve discovered a simple truth about poems. They are living things. They grow and change. Once the poet has put the poem out in plain sight, so to speak, where others can read and study it, find meanings and form opinions about it, he no longer has control of the poem. It has taken on a larger life and is subject to what the readers find within it. It may not be at all be the meaning the poet intended, but it is just as valid as what the poet intended, or thought he intended, when he wrote it. Strangely enough, the poet himself is often likely to alter his impression of what the poem means!
Much like art or music, a poem speaks to the reader through that reader’s personal history of knowledge, experiences and associations and so each person’s appreciation of the poem must be at least slightly different from that of anyone else who experiences the poem.
During the first few months of my participation in the Poetry Gang, I was astonished at the interpretation one of the members expressed about some of my poems. I am a pretty literal person in both my artwork and my writing. I don’t strive for hidden meanings and obscure metaphors. I say what I mean, at least I try to. My poem was titled “My Road” and was about the path a woman followed through life. I envisioned her as an old woman, sitting on her front porch and reminiscing about her life, starting with the statement that she had been born just up the road, and ended with her speculating about where the road went; stating that she “might pack up and see, someday.”
I was appalled when one of the members handed me his rewritten version of my poem, written as he thought it better expressed his understanding of the poem’s message. I couldn’t believe how badly he had misinterpreted my poem. And, rather hotly, I told him to write his own poem and leave mine alone.
Since then, I have become aware of how many different meanings a word or group of words can have for as many different people.
I’ve ceased to be bewildered when my own interpretation of someone else’s poem turns out to be totally at odds with their intent. And I’ve become a little more forgiving when my own words are badly misread. I thought it might be fun to write a poem that has no meaning at all. Possibly it can be done, but in my best attempt to do so, the poem took charge at the last minute and insisted on giving meaning to itself. Here it is:

Uttered Nonsense
Synonyms, and antonyms
Acronyms and severed limbs
Unicorns and flugelhorns
Capricorns and early morns
Summer nights and civil rights
Chinese kites and purple tights
Lazy days and cathode rays
Ears of maize and corset stays
Painted rocks and midnight walks
Engine blocks and argyle socks
Computer nerds; and rhyming words
don’t make a poem - that’s absurd !