Nov 06 2010

On Interpreting Poems and Dreams

Published by at 9:05 am under Poetry,Poetry Chaikhana Misc.

In response to Friday’s poem by Wendell Berry, a few people commented that they read it as a meditation on the path to a mature and peaceful sense of mortality, something not really touched on in my own notes about the poem. I think Wendell Berry would entirely approve of that way of understanding his poem. Throughout his series of Sabbath poems, there is both an exploration of Sabbath as spiritual rest, but also, yes, Sabbath as the rest at the end of a lived life… with the natural world often teaching us these great lessons not as easily learned amidst human concerns.

This is one more reminder that my commentary on any particular poem should not be taken as all-encompassing or the one “right” way to understand it. Poems, by the elastic nature of their language, have no single, fixed meaning or correct interpretation. Even the when the poet himself has a fixed meaning in mind when writing the poem, the moment that poem is shared it expands in meaning.

I like to read a poem the way I try to understand a dream: It is layered with meaning. Ask yourself a question and then look at the poem — it will suggest a meaning to you. Ask yourself a different question and reread the same poem — you will discover a different meaning. Return to the poem five years later and discover a new meaning again. Poems change with us.

It is my hope that the thoughts and observations and occasional tangents I include with each poem inspire you to connect more deeply with the poem or be touched by it in some unexpected way. But my commentary is only one possible entranceway into the world opened by each poem. Never hesitate to claim a different understanding of a poem, even one contrary to mine. It’s not so important what I say about a poem; it is in your own personal experience of the poem that is where the magic happens!

3 responses so far

3 Responses to “On Interpreting Poems and Dreams”

  1. Aparrnaon 08 Nov 2010 at 2:58 am

    Wow, marvelous statement Ivan: “Poems change with us.”…. No wonder then that i’m still gallivanting around some of the earlier poems i had savoured first on poetry-chaikhana mails– Mary Oliver’s “Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches?”… Thomas Merton’s – In Silence and your own Adi Atman. The words on this website kind of grow on you, and you grow up with them…. Certainly we change with the poems as they do with us!!
    Thank you for living!!!

  2. isabel tippleon 10 Nov 2010 at 11:03 am

    ‘A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to it’s old dimensions.’

    I think i might have saved the above quote from you Ivan – or may it is a well-known zen theme. Anyway, i immediately thought of it when i read your comment. Scientists tell us that the Universe is expanding. How true this is when our own worlds are enlarged through the reading of poetry and literature. How marvellous that we can still ‘travel’ without moving our legs even! How awe- inspiring is the thought that the universe itself is expanded with every human thought and appreciation!

  3. simonbaghon 29 Nov 2010 at 3:27 am

    by the time interval of birth and death to calculate
    any time a new meaning from a poem you interpret

    each poem is to present the poet’s view window
    via which poet looks into his dreamland meadow

    if the poet is wise enough to tell length of life field
    gist of his poem never change, it is by truth sealed

    if you still find changes in meaning of sacred poem
    that is you who is so young for such a great realm

    what there is but get prepared to deliver the soul,
    returning to main home just lovingly to do the role

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