Poetry’s Intent

Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens

“What syllable are you seeking,
In the distances of sleep?
Speak it.”
~Wallace Stevens, To The Roaring Wind

Endeavors have a way of taking on a life of their own and since my posts have recently been leaning more towards poetry than myth, I thought I’d write about something I often wonder about concerning poetry.  Should a poet’s intentions be readily apparent or does some element of mystery and self-interpretation serve a poem best? It may seem that the answer is quite obvious – both ways of presenting poetry have their merits – but I think these ideas are worth exploring.

I am a lover of words and sounds, as I believe most writers are. Some of the things that appeal to me most about poetry are the turns of phrase, the rhythms, the repetition of sounds and the shapes of vowels and consonants as they are spoken.  I am also a lover of meanings and symbolism and so I love the metaphors, the descriptions that inspire feelings and bring images to mind and the linking of words with emotions. But there is also the most important part which is the idea of connection between two human beings – the poet and the reader.  It doesn’t always stop there. If the poem touches deeply on universal themes, the potential for connection with the whole human race is present. How can the poet convey his or her insights in a way that bridges that incredible gap?

There is a poem by Wallace Stevens that I love, but I can’t tell you what it’s about. I’ve read Earthy Anecdote a thousand times and have it mostly memorized. Curiosity has led me to search for an interpretation many times without success.  It is a riddle poem, lighthearted and fun. Or is it?  No one really knows what it means for certain. There are continuing speculations and discussions about this poem – evidence that it has resonated within the minds of its readers for many years.

There is no doubt that something about Earthy Anecdote captures attentions and stimulates imaginations.  For me, it evokes a feeling of something wild and mysterious.  I would love to know what was on Stevens’ mind when he wrote the poem, but not knowing his intention doesn’t stop me from reading it again and again and loving the mystery behind it. It may be the mystery that makes me love it even more.

I think that some poems communicate universal truths and experiences in the same way that dreams speak to us, using the mysterious language of images and symbols which help us to connect and understand each other on a deeper level without words. A sunset has no words, no meaning, but two people can share the same aesthetic experience whether they are seeing the same sunset together or any sunset at any time in the course of one’s life. A painting works this way and so does music. No words are needed to share in the most basic of human emotions and experiences. Poetry carries words, but quite possibly it is the wordless music of sounds and syllables and the word-painted images within the poems that carry the real meaning.  Can the feeling or sensation of a poem be successful in translating these universal emotions even if the words are not fully understood? It is for the reader to decide.

Earthy Anecdote
by Wallace Stevens

Every time the bucks went clattering
Over Oklahoma
A firecat bristled in the way.

Wherever they went,
They went clattering,
Until they swerved
In a swift, circular line
To the right,
Because of the firecat.

Or until they swerved
In a swift, circular line
To the left,
Because of the firecat.

The bucks clattered.
The firecat went leaping,
To the right, to the left,
Bristled in the way.

Later, the firecat closed his bright eyes
And slept.

From Wallace Stevens Collected Poetry and Prose

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11 Responses to Poetry’s Intent

  1. It seems to me the best poetry has ideas and expressions that can be interpreted in many different ways, as each reader is viewing the poem from the lens of her own life’s experiences. That’s why it is so interesting to see how others understand a poem.

    The Stevens poem made me think of Cat Steven’s album, “Teaser & The Firecat,” and then made me realize that I have no idea what a firecat is! But it seems to be an ever present threat to the bucks – they always have to find ways to avoid it. Perhaps in the end it doesn’t matter which way they go because the result will be the same, eventually the firecat (death?) will be satisfied…

  2. magsx2 says:

    A very unusual poem, I did read it twice, still haven’t come to any conclusion about the words written, will be giving this a bit of thought. :)

  3. Pingback: Good news everybody, NYC brought back Poetry in Motion! « The Nightly Poem

  4. Jamie Dedes says:

    One thing I’ve learned to appreciate since I’ve been blogging is just how much room there is for interpretation and that that’s okay. Flexibility works. In reading comments on my site and those of others, I’ve seen just how differently we can each interpret a poem and that there is real value in each person’s visceral response, even when it devates from that of other readers or the writer. We all read from our life experience.

    There have been times when my poems have been totally “misunderstood” by readers. Early on I thought that was a failure on my part. (Maybe, maybe not.) Sometimes I’ve been frustrated because I couldn’t “pin down” a poem I was reading. I finally came to realize that the most important thing is that whatever it means to someone else, it is a lesson, or a tear or smile, a healing … or a “puzzlement” (to quote the King of Siam). It is okay if we puzzle over a poem for years. It’s another way to experience it. Sometimes I learn something from a another writer or reader’s interpretation or see something I didn’t see in the poem before.

    It’s also okay for a poem to simply be a painting or nonsense. The beauty of the medium is it’s delightful versitility.

    Myth vs. Poetry (Your original vision for your blog.): One of the many benefits of blogging is that we meet other people. We also meet ourselves in new and different whys. Our work takes a turn we never expected but we do delight in.

    This is a worthy debate. Nice job.

    P.S. Love “Poetry in Motion.”

    • Thank you for the wonderful feedback! You have many good thoughts here. You are right – even if the poet has a very clear intention, the reader still may see it differently. We do read from our life experience.
      As for the intention of my blog… I’ve changed my tag line so the poetry fits in more. I like it! It suits me fine. And if (when) things evolve, I won’t hesitate to change it if I need to.

  5. Jamie Dedes says:

    Reblogged this on POEM ALONE and commented:
    An essay for ariadnesdaghter on interpreting poetry. Worth you time.

  6. midnighthues says:

    Interesting information :)

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