Freedom to Interpret

“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

Those words from Leonard Cohen’s Anthem, in the context of the rest of the lyrics, are subject to a thousand interpretations. In my view, the tune is a poem set to music. Taken alone and absent context, they summon an equal number of explanations. Everyone reads those words through a prism or hears them against background noise, the sounds of experience.

While the authors of poetry and musical lyrics (one and the same, in my view, so from here on I’ll just call them poetry) might have had a specific meaning for the words in mind, the consumer of those words is free to assign different meanings to those words. In my opinion, that’s one of the attractions of poetry, the freedom it gives both the writer and the consumer. I remember times in high school, especially, when my teacher would insist on looking at every word, every line, to get at what the poet meant. Those times frustrated me to no end because I knew, even then, that we could never get a what the poet “meant” unless the poet conducted the line-by-line discussion. And I knew, even then, that part of the allure of poetry is both the mystery of its meanings and its ability to get the reader to think about the words and give them meaning that makes sense to the reader.

Sometimes, the meaning contained in well-written poetry can be transparent; the poet’s intent can be obvious. I said “well-written.” Maybe. In my view, the only well-written poetry with meanings that are obvious are poems that call the reader or listener to action. For most poems, though, the call to action is the call to read and reflect and assign meaning that matters to the reader or consumer.

I wrote a poem a few years ago that had very specific, highly personal meaning to me but, to most others, probably means something entirely different if, indeed, it means anything at all:

Into Salt

The water was gentle that February day, the waves
subdued as if they knew we were coming and why.

Salt in the air and in our eyes. Water splashing
against the beach and running down the rivers on our faces.

Wading, slowly, into the warm water,
hating every step and cursing every breath untaken.

Holding onto one another the way we
no longer could hold onto her.

Releasing the contents of a temporary plastic
urn into the permanence of a sea of infinity.

Impossibly hard, brutally final, an ending come too early
in a world in which endings are so often too late.

The gentleness of the water was unwelcome,
waves should have pounded the sand,
wind should have shrieked in rebellion.

She had been someone who loved and
was loved, someone who cared and was cared for.

The final soul-crushing goodbye, breaking life into a million
shards like brittle glass that cannot be made whole again.

You just go on, remembering what melted into salt.

I wrote the poem as a remembrance of the day that my family, a year after her death, scattered my sister’s ashes in the Gulf of Mexico. That was a very hard day.

Poetry provides an outlet when nothing else will do. Its meaning, to both writer and reader/consumer, is defined both by words included in the poem or lyrics and those left out. In artists’ language, the latter would be called negative space.  In the poem above, there’s no mention of my sister nor my family. The only clue that it is about ashes released into the water is the mention of a plastic urn. Lots of “negative space” in the poem.

Here’s another poem, inspired by the same sister. I’ll comment about the poem below.

Heathen Saint

What of a heathen saint,
a woman whose actions lack
covert motives, a guardian of
goodness, a paladin of such purity
even snow cringes at the comparison?

She was neither nun nor pastor nor
preacher, did not even believe in God,
so spent her Sunday mornings away from
hymnals and flowers and the sound of
uplifting worshipful organ music.

But she believed fervently in people,
so she toiled on Sundays, like every day,
to repair the detritus of the night before,
the shrapnel of broken dreams and abandoned
hopes and children left to fend for themselves
while parents offered delirious sacraments
to suicidal addictions and personal demons.

Some think Sunday mornings unsuited
to the stench of cigarettes, stale beer, and
cheap whiskey, that odors of night sweats,
urine, and fear have no place on Sunday,
a day some set aside for reflection.

But she believed in people and that
she could make a difference every day.
She fought dogma that traded the
fragrance of drunks in church
pews on off-days for a meal
and a soft place for their heads;
she asked for no quid pro quo.

She traded safety for relevance and
comfort for concern, leaving herself
open to the consequences of compassion.
The world was a better place with her,
and remains so now, because of her.

Again, the poem was inspired by my sister. It was not, strictly speaking, about her. The words meld my recollections of her with my idealization of a modern-day “saint.” This poem, like the first, relies on “negative space” for its meaning and impact…at least to the writer. Without saying it outright, the poem derides those who cling to religion for salvation but whose behavior is at odds with their “beliefs.” It intended to do that by suggestion  Absent my explanation, I don’t know what readers/consumers of the poem might think it is about. I don’t know whether they like it or hate it or find it easy to dismiss with no strong feelings either way. A poem’s imagery often resides in the head of the writer and the reader, not in written words. For that reason, among others, a poem can (and usually does) mean different things to different people.

The first two stanzas of another poem I wrote a few years ago also rely in part on “negative space” for their meaning:


Poverty slams doors
and binds them shut
with shackles purchased
with the fruits of avarice,
thick ribbons of greed
sewn from raw hubris and cold

Devoid of the fibers of
kindness, these braids
weave a crusted cloth, spun into
clothing worn in unearned
shame by victims of circumstance
thrust upon them by someone else’s

These two stanzas are screaming metaphors. The rest of the poem, too, relies entirely on metaphors to express rage at the existence of poverty. The metaphors in the first two stanzas and the remainder of the poem cast blame for poverty on greed and excess and hubris. I think (but I’m not certain) the writer’s intent is clear throughout the poem. I think, but I’m not sure, the reader’s or consumer’s understanding of the poem will coincide with my intent in writing it. But if the reader doesn’t interpret it in the way I intended it to be interpreted, that’s all right. Because it’s poetry. If I wanted to be sure the reader would clearly understand my meaning for the words I used, I wouldn’t have written a poem. Instead, I would have written an essay and I would have explained in great detail and in multiple ways what I intended. I would have tried to ensure that no one could possibly read my words and “misinterpret” them to mean something I did not intend. But I didn’t write an essay. I wrote a poem. Poems are open to interpretation. Whether that interpretation corresponds to the poet’s intent is immaterial.

As I finish writing this post, I’m asking myself why I wrote it? I think, perhaps, I wrote it to emphasize to myself that I believe the value of poetry to both writer and reader resides in the meaning each assigns to it. And that the meanings assigned by writer and reader need not coincide, because poetry is extremely personal. And poems need not matter to everyone who reads them. It’s okay to dismiss an individual poem as irrelevant to oneself…if, indeed, it truly is irrelevant.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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