Saturday, May 23, 2020

Prompt #353 – Surface and Deeper Meanings

A poet dares be just so clear and no clearer...
He unzips the veil from beauty, but does not remove it.
A poet utterly clear is a trifle glaring.

E. B. White, from One Man's Meat.

The above quote is one that has always intrigued me. The idea that poetry should contain some element of “challenge” is part of what great poems are about. The gist of it is that poems should function on more than one level—the level of obvious meaning (the literal, surface layer) and then a layer (or layers) of deeper meaning.

Deeper meanings that lie below surface meanings are usually evoked through language that creates connotations. To discover a poem’s deeper levels of meaning, it is necessary to reflect upon and to interpret the poem’s language.

To discover meanings in a poem, consider the following general tips:

Because poetry is condensed language, the title is often a significant clue to the overall meaning.

The basic component of poetry is imagery. Think about all the images in a poem and possible meanings to which they may point.

Look at figures of speech, symbolisms, and other literary devices in a poem. How are they used to convey meaning? What meanings do they suggest?

What does the ending tell you? How a poem comes to closure (or “dismounts”) can give you clues to deeper meanings.

Remember—not every poem “says” what it appears to “speak.”


1. For starters, decide what you want to write about. Is there a particular theme you have in mind? A free write to get you going might help you to establish your theme (main idea).

2. For example, your theme might be loss. You might have a specific loss in mind, perhaps the death of a parent, spouse, partner, or friend. Your obvious meaning is the particular loss. Deeper levels of meaning might be about what you learned from this loss.

3. Try to write this deeper meaning in a single sentence. You sentence might be something like, “Some losses never go away; the intense sense of loss may change over time, but there is always something of it left.” This one sentence may be helpful to you in focusing on the deeper meaning of your theme once you start writing. (The sentence isn’t going to be part of your poem—it’s just to help you get into your poem.)

4. Decide upon the point of view you’d like to take in your poem. Point of view is like a lens through which the poem is seen. You may opt for the first person (I, me) or the third person (he, she, him, her). Writing in the third person is sometimes a more comfortable place from which to work. It’s a little like creating and alter ego for yourself and can give you room to “stand back” and define and clarify the situation.

5. Now, introduce your theme by relating the “story” of a loss. Be sure to work toward a strong emotional center. You can do that through images and technical devices (for example, simile, metaphor, metonymy, repetition, internal rhymes, alliteration, and assonance). Experiment with the devices that work best for you and for your poem.

6. It’s important to convey feeling through images—that is, to show and not tell. As the quote above states, be just so clear and no clearer. In other words, don't tell too much. Trust your readers to discover meanings on their own.  Avoid words that “tell” what an emotion is. Work instead through examples. Often, symbolic (not actual) imagery will give dimension to a poem. In the case of the loss example mentioned earlier, you may use something (road, highway, trajectory of stars) to symbolize the length of time it takes for the intense feeling of loss to subside.

7. As you move away from the literal introduction of your “story,” remember your underlying or deeper meaning. Don’t lose sight of what you’re trying to convey. Using our loss example, your poem will begin with the “story” of a particular loss but must move forward to include your deeper meaning (that some losses never go away completely).

8. When you have a good draft completed, read it carefully, line by line. Ask yourself what details the poem can live without. Have you “told” too much? Have you been (to use E. B. White's term) "a trifle glaring?" Make sure the images and symbolisms you’ve used enhance your meanings. If they detract from your meanings, change or delete them.

9. Finally, let your poem rest for a few days and then come back to it. Read it aloud to yourself. Have you succeeded in conveying the meanings you wanted to express? Now is the time to continue refining and editing. Remember that a poem may go through many drafts before it’s finished.


Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.   
His house is in the village though;   
He will not see me stopping here   
To watch his woods fill up with snow.   

My little horse must think it queer   
To stop without a farmhouse near   
Between the woods and frozen lake   
The darkest evening of the year.   

He gives his harness bells a shake   
To ask if there is some mistake.   
The only other sound’s the sweep   
Of easy wind and downy flake.   

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   
But I have promises to keep,   
And miles to go before I sleep,   
And miles to go before I sleep.

Acknowledgment: Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” from The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem. Copyright 1923, © 1969 by Henry Holt and Company, Inc., renewed 1951, by Robert Frost.

On the surface, this is a poem about a man or a woman who travels home on a snowy evening and stops for few moments by a wooded area. On the surface, this poem is very simple. The speaker stops by some woods on a snowy evening. He or she quietly contemplates the peaceful scene and is tempted to stay longer; however, he or she acknowledges the pull of tasks not yet completed and the large distance still to be traveled before he or she can rest for the night. Ah ... but is that the only meaning? Deeper meanings lie in the lines,

    But I have promises to keep,   
    And miles to go before I sleep,   
    And miles to go before I sleep.

The underlying theme is perhaps that one must concentrate on fulfilling promises and accomplishing duties without being distracted by the pleasures of life and/or the natural world (however pure and simple those pleasures may be). The poem, then, become about commitments and obligations.

Another underlying theme might be that we all have to make choices. The speaker in this poem must choose between staying in the woods and enjoying nature’s peacefulness or returning to his or her duties and obligations.

In addition, it has been suggested that Frost uses the symbolism of miles to suggest that the speaker has to achieve many things and fulfill many responsibilities before he or she enters into eternal sleep (we're talking death here). In other words, before leaving this world, he or she has work and perhaps even relationships (promises to keep) that cannot be abandoned. His or her journey is far from over.

Another interpretation suggests that the speaker in the poem contemplates suicide—the deep, dark woods, perhaps symbolizing death, were inviting and even compelling to him or to her. The speaker, however, recognizes his or her duty and purpose in staying alive.

As you can see, each reader brings his or her personal interpretation to the poem. Frost “unzipped the veil from beauty,” but he didn’t remove it and left it to us, the readers, to enter the poem and to determine for ourselves what the poem’s deeper meanings might be.

Now it’s your turn to write something with both a surface meaning and one or more deeper meanings! 

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