Creative process: Understanding what a poem means

By Dennis Mellersh

One of the difficulties in understanding the poems of some poets is that the references, images and experiences conveyed in those poems are so uniquely personal and particular to the writer of the poem that we as readers have trouble figuring out what the poet is writing about.

We can all remember the problem we faced in school when the teacher asked us “What does this poem mean?” Or worse, “What did the poet mean when they wrote this poem?”

The trick, if that’s the right word, is for the poet to take their personal experiences, search for the underlying universal emotion or concepts in those experiences, and then convey those universals to us in a manner we can understand.

If the poet cannot relate their personal experiences and emotions to us in language that is beyond the purely personal (language understood only by the writer of the poem) then the impact and enjoyment of the poem will largely be lost on us as readers.

An effective poem, on the other hand, let,s us share in the poet’s intentions.

The book, Poetry in English: An Anthology explains it this way, “… ‘getting’ a poem’s whole movement helps us see that poetry is more than arbitrary ‘self-expression.’ Like other arts, it intensifies normal experience and perception by its concentrated focus; and it normalizes unusual subjective states by enabling us to share them.” (1)

(1) Poetry in English: An Anthology, Oxford University Press, Toronto, 1987.

About Dennis Mellersh

Dennis Mellersh is an independent writer, journalist, editor, and editorial consultant.
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