The Fraught Question of a Poem’s “Meaning”

indian ear

What does this poem mean?

Now there’s a question. The kind of question with dangers on each side of it. You know, like the proverbial rock and a hard place. Or Devil and the deep, blue sea. Or, for you classical gases, Scylla and Charybdis.

It’s a question oft heard in schools. Does a poem have a specific meaning? Well, yes, of course. Only one meaning? Well, yes and no. Can it mean whatever I want it to mean? I hope not. But what if there’s more than one meaning? Depends on the reader.

As an example, I give you a poem and a meaning that could get a knight grailing “meaning” in trouble.

Elegy for a Broken Machine by Patrick Phillips

My father was trying
to fix something

and I sat there just watching,
like I used to,
whenever something

went wrong.
I kept asking where he’d been,
until he put down a wrench
and said Listen:
dying’s just something

that happens sometimes.
Who knows
where that kind of dream comes from?
Why some things

vanish, and some
just keep going forever?

Like that look on his face
when he’d stare off at something

I could never make out
in the murky garage,
his ear pressed
to whatever it was
that had died—
his eyes listening for something

so deep inside it, I thought
even the silence,
if you listened,
meant something.

Clearly the poem has meaning to its author. All poems do. And clearly that meaning is not terribly complicated, though complications, like ghosts, tend to show themselves to some people as opposed to all.

What struck me in reading this is two things: the way the father presses his ear to a “broken machine,” and the way the father’s eyes are “listening for something.” I especially like that twist — having the eyes and not the ears listen — because, taken from the context of the poem, it makes little sense, but appearing as part of the poem’s anecdote, it makes complete sense.

I understand Phillips’ intent, that a mystery of life is being passed down from father to son, but I also like how the metaphor works for me personally.

For me, one superfluous meaning for the broken machine is its similarities to the act of writing poetry. You stare into space, musing. You write and then you listen with your eyes. Is it speaking? Is it working now or still broken? A poet who revises, who solves the puzzle of their creation’s “brokenness,” can bring early words to life, but sometimes he or she just has to walk away. The machine truly is broken, no matter how hard the writer listens.

That, it’s safe to say, was not Patrick Phillip’s intended”meaning when he wrote the poem, but it’s safe to say, as long as you’re along for the ride he created, he’s OK with readers who create shadow rides, as long as they don’t imperiously dictate that their shadows are the one and only “true” meaning, negating even his.

Bottom line: It’s safe to say that most poems have a single meaning, but also multiple meanings. They have a correct meaning, but also other meanings. They have wrong interpretations, but the poet is probably tolerant to some of these interpretations and not tolerant to others.

Like I said: What does this poem mean? Now there’s a question. Turns out,  a fraught one.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *