Poetry and Meaning

Dad and I were talking a little bit about the meaning of poetry because I gave him a poem to read from Mark Halliday where I am a character, an antagonist, so to speak. Dad was lamenting the hiddenness of poetry’s meaning, and gave the example of Oh Captain, My Captain by Walt Whitman, which he read in school. He remembered how he was dismayed to learn that the poem was “about” Abraham Lincoln. Where in the poem does it say that!? Poetry, sez Dad, ought to be self contained. You shouldn’t need external information in order to understand it.

I don’t completely agree (because it’s impossible to contain everything in any bit of writing, and what a reader brings to a poem is part of the fun), but I understand where Dad is coming from, because I, too, dislike dense poetry.

So I was going through the “Notable Essays” in the back of the 2002 edition of Best American Essays and found that Brian Doyle had a nomination for his essay Notes on the Poem ‘Ggfddfg’ by Joseph Doyle. I had read the essay before, thought it was pretty good, but not Best American Essays material really. But I went back and read it again and liked it even more. Why? I think it’s because I was thinking about my conversation with Dad about poetry, and I was remembering some of our discussion here on this site about Remember the Titans and films vs. movies, and criticism and art and whatnot. And I think this brings me back, full circle, to the subject I began with in this entry, which is that we always read through our own experience and knowledge, bringing to what we read a part of ourselves, and that’s what makes reading so great.

PatrickConnections/Funnies/Observations05/13/03 6 comments


Dad • 05/13/03 9:38 PM:

I feel the need to comment and clarify. First, this entry isn’t that funny, so maybe should have been put in observations or something. Second, I don’t think I ever said (or think now) that poetry should be “self-contained.” My use of Oh Captain… was only an example that came to mind because the poem was first presented to me in a high school class without introduction or comment. Later, and here my memory isn’t very good, a discussion ensued wherein someone mentioned that it was about Lincoln, and the class behaved as if everyone should already know that. Because I didn’t know it, I thought perhaps there was some subtle wording in the poem that I was missing and everyone else “got.” If the teacher had merely mentioned that the poem was written shortly after Lincoln’s death and originally presented in such a way that everyone of that time knew Whitman was talking about Lincoln, then I would have had no problem with it. So my criticism is not of the poem, but of the poor job my teacher did in presenting it. Although I’m not particularly well read myself, I do like allusions to other authors and/or classical works because it enrichens language and brings that special enjoyment to reading that Patrick is talking about in this entry.

I guess it’s kind of like the discussion we had in remembering the titans. Everything we experience makes us think of and make connections to other experiences in our life. Sometimes writing (and yes, poetry) moves me and sometimes it doesn’t. That’s the age-old problem for the poets, who sometimes don’t seem to care if they move anyone besides themselves.

Dad • 05/13/03 10:07 PM:

I just read La Rochefoucauld, where I took a brief look at James Richardson’s Vectors site where I found this one: 5. You never say anything as stupid as what people thought you said. How true, how true.

Patrick • 05/14/03 12:46 AM:

To clarify, I meant to make the post about the Brian Doyle essay, which is mighty funny, so that’s where the “funnies” tag came from. I think I cross referenced it under “observations” too, because it got out of hand. I don’t think I meant to say that Dad had actually said that he wanted poems to be self-contained. That was a reduction or oversimplification, but not wholly wrong, right? Like anything the truth is somewhere between the extremes. Poetry is an extremely difficult genre to pin down. But that doesn’t meant we can’t try. Anyway, the original intent of the entry was to celebrate the funniness of Brian Doyle’s essay, which pokes fun at critical pomposity in an intelligent, creative way. So if you didn’t read that, please do!

Dan • 05/14/03 8:33 PM:

the doyle essay reminds me of me explaining my artwork in critiques (though slightly more eloquent doyle is) [who am i? yoda?]. the best part for me of doyle’s essay is the end part about the last three lines being a “leap into the blank white possibility of the rest of our “pages” even as we leap into the past”.

of course it’s bullcrap, but it’s interesting anyways to think of it like that, and so the point i’m trying to make is that sometimes when you dig deep, WAY too deep, to uncover meaning in literature or art, what you find/say can be interesting anyways. i know that i’ve done it with my own stuff.

example: i did a documentary photo assignment on a restaurant here in south bend (it’s a crappy, greasy-spoon place). i had to explain my whole thought process in the final critique. i didn’t know what to say other than i wanted to get some funny photos and see how well i could depict the place in compositions. so i started talking, and all of a sudden i said, “well, i’m always thinking about the similarities between literature and art and i am interested in creative non-fiction writing and have read a lot and written some and i wanted to relate that type of writing, about not particularly exciting adventures, but of relationships and occurences, and telling stories well and finding meaning and metaphor in the quotidian events of the day. and documenting, this style of photography that i have chosen, does best to tell stories of typical events and reveals the extraordinary.

so, sometimes going crazy and overanalyzing can have its benefits. and sometimes it actually is true.

Dad • 05/15/03 11:04 AM:

Dan, so are you saying that a picture is not worth a thousand words?

Dan • 05/15/03 12:16 PM:

hmmm. i reread my comment and you might be referring to my 2nd paragraph opening, “of course it’s bullcrap, but it’s interesting anyways to think of it like that, and so the point i’m trying to make…”

that was a typo, or i just messed up what i meant to say.
WHAT I MEANT: what you say may be bullcrap to the actual creator of the work, but sometimes when you reach far and extract more meaning than you meant in the first place, it can be entertaining and even meaningful. i once commented on pat’s “gravity and distance (the 1st one)” essay and told him what i got out of it, what i thought it meant, at least to me, and he told me that pretty much he wasn’t going for that, but that’s the beauty of literature (and thus, art), that by (borrowing from “why pat writes”) reading/viewing/writing you have created something and you create meaning for yourself and all that. for that personal connection to a work of art. which is why eddie vedder doesn’t explain his songs too much. one gets what one wants out of it. that’s why “Oh Captain! My Captain!” doesn’t HAVE to be about abe lincoln. certainly i wouldn’t have known who it was about if i hadn’t been told, but i might like it because it created some neat/nifty emotions inside of me.

so, that’s what i meant. i should probably reread and edit this, but i won’t. i’m on some dude’s computer and i fear him coming back soon. i don’t want to be here when he does.


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