Poets and critics are prone to announcing that the meaning of the poem is the poem and some writers are not prepared to say any more on the subject. Such poets assert that the medium is the message or indeed that there is no message, only the poem. When questioned about his poem, ‘French and English’, the songwriter and poet, Leonard Cohen (2004:192) replied that he could not, ‘go beyond the poem itself’ and refused further commentary. Auden (2000:69) takes this idea further when he writes that:
‘It has been said that a poem should not mean but be. This is not quite
accurate. In a poem, as distinct from many other kinds of verbal societies
meaning and being are identical.’
We cannot tell the singer from the song, the dancer from the dance, the meaning from the form. Both poets suggest that paraphrasing the poem or explaining its meaning could diminish the poem’s power. In that translation, parts of experience would be lost. Cohen (2004:192) makes it clear that the poem is an experience which stands without further explanation so: ‘that is the mark of a completed song [or poem] – that it doesn’t need anything else said about it’.
When writing, students sometimes express surprise that the poem, ‘came out differently from the way I expected’, or that, ‘I did not know I thought that’, as if the writing of the poem in itself gave clarity or enlightenment. This is a reflection not unlike Robert Lowell’s (2002:269) when he describes the creation of poetry as a kind of journey. The poem culminates in a moment when the poem is written, although ‘You may not know you have it to say’. The not-knowing-you-have-it-to-say underlines the fact that the writing of a poem can be an exploration and synthesis of thoughts dimly felt, but not truly expressed until the poem takes shape. On the other hand some students have said such things as, ‘I don’t know exactly what it means, but it is how I feel,’ as if the language of the poem captures emotions and images which the writer cannot express in any other way. This is akin to Corcoran’s story of Picasso (2002:160) saying that his thoughts and feelings are ‘Guernica’ and that a description could not express what the picture captures.
Similarly, Lorca attempted to express feelings and ideas through images which can unsettle and challenge, even when the reader (or perhaps the writer) cannot in a logical or deductive way exactly pin down the meaning. We can see this in Lorca’s ‘Peaceful Waters: Variation’ a poem translated by Adrian Mitchell and displayed on the London Underground. The poet seeks to link experiences together by arranging three objects, air, pool and mouth, which are all contained in the image of peacefulness. There is a perfect symmetry with the repetition of the word ‘peaceful’ echoed by the word ‘under’ and together the images do give a sense of peace and almost Zen-like tranquillity. Yet, the list of images would be hard to paraphrase for, as Boucher (2004:159) suggests:
‘Poetry of inspiration breaks free from logical control and passionately
rejects the temptation to be understood.’
Lorca and Mitchell accept that life can be mysterious and that, through a concept of poetic thinking, connections can be made between objects and ideas. The structure of the translated poem is an illustration of such connections, which are mysterious but affecting.
This sense of the mysterious may be one of the reasons why Bob Dylan (1990:97) has been so adamant about not offering commentary on his own work: ‘The point is not understanding what I write but feeling it’. Poetry can capture what for most of our lives, as Hughes (2002:155) asserts, lies behind doors, which are locked ‘with the keys inside’. The point about poetry is that it is capable of moving us to tears. Even when we cannot fully understand the poet’s lines some sense of its feeling or its ‘visible core’, as Vendler (2004:6) calls it, stretches out and burns us with a truth that we do not fully comprehend in our rational mind.
Auden, W.H.  The Virgin and the dynamo’ pp 67-71. edt.Herbert, Hollis. Strong Words, Northumberland: Bloodaxe.
Boucher, D.  Dylan and Cohen: Poets of Rock, New York: Continuum
Cohen, L.  quoted in Boucher above.
Corcoran, N.  Do you Mr. Jones? Bob Dylan with the poets and professors, London: Chatto and Windus.
Dylan, B.  quoted in Boucher above.
Hughes, Ted  ‘Words and Experience’ pp 152-157 edt. Herbert, Hollis. Strong Words, Northumberland: Bloodaxe.
Lorca, F.G.  Poet in New York, London: Penguin.
Lowell, R.  ‘An Interview’ Modern Poets on Modern Poetry, edt. Scully. London: Fontana.