Why Do We Expect Meaning From Poems?


Contemporary poems and poets that purposely work-around the styles and tones (though not necessarily the influences) of prior generations are not unlike Lynch’s description of films and music. However, in poetry classes, students are either asked to find the meaning of a poem or, in the case of teaching a course with a focus on postmodern poets, seek meaning themselves. Meaning, of course, is endemic to everyone. We are constantly searching through the world, through space and culture for the meaning to life and, less abstractly, to the events which surround us, especially the traumatic events of shootings and other acts of violence.

However, the search for an objective meaning to these existential questions is fruitless. As Camus tells us, there are three methods for dealing with this fruitlessness: physical death (suicide), philosophical death (religion), or acceptance of the absurdity which surrounds the quest for meaning. The fourth option, I wrote previously, is denial, a very popular choice.

We are trained by the education system, at least in the United States, to seek meaning, to codify our response to anything: birthdays, death, politics and music or art. We are expected not only to place a subjective value judgment on these items but also to explain via language why these subjective judgments are correct.

I believe this kind of judgment and search is based on religion. Religion tells us not only what is right and wrong but also that any subjective “truth” is sinful and that only the objectivity of the very subjective faith can lead to an answer to these greater existential questions. Further, it is in determining these judgments that meaning can be discerned. Religion is not philosophical death for nothing.

Students are especially conditioned, then, to find a correct meaning in the poems they read, a process hammered together in grade school in order to teach a consensus literature with a set meaning before being catapulted into the subjective world. Does religion not do the same thing? Does it not attempt to indoctrinate one with a set of ideas for governing oneself and others before unleashing these individuals on the world? This is not to say that education is killing philosophical thought – far from it. Education should be the expansion not only of knowledge but also the blueprint for how one should acquire more knowledge. However, for the sake of testing and making sure those entering the world beyond school have the same base of knowledge, it became necessary at some point to teach that objective meaning is possible.

Life, friends, is not boring – at least not anymore. Life is chaotic and yet simultaneously structured. There seems to be a narrowing definition of success in American society and it seems that any discipline which challenges that definition is deemed “difficult” and undermined through that difficulty via its subjectivity.

Poetry, then, stands in opposition on these fronts. Poetry, like Lynch’s example of music and his own films, is a witness to chaos through the subjective lens of experience. However, because poetry uses language, it is expected to make sense, to provide meaning within its framework. Because language seems to exist within set parameters of definition and grammar usage, it is assumed that words themselves are not subjective. Words, because they have a set definition in dictionaries, are seemingly not open to interpretation. Words are made up of their prescribed meaning based on society consensus. Because language is our most developed construct, when elements of it are used, they are decidedly set in their meaning – otherwise, what would there be to hold on to?

Poetry is the tool of abandonment, the way of letting go of these pre-determined parameters of language. A poem is the place to let go of expectation, to cease our attempts at aligning meaning, language and experience. The elements can exist as themselves: experience can remain just that with no need of affirmation and language can be reset with the space of a work as it needs to be.

For some, surely the search for meaning is itself meaning, a sense of belonging to something greater than themselves. Without the search for meaning, life would veer dangerously into the absurd which, under no circumstances, should be accepted. In a poetic work, however, this absurdity should not only be allowed to flourish but it should be expected and encouraged.