Saturday, January 23, 2016

Prompt #243 – What Does Your Poem Mean?

It may be said that poems are in one way like icebergs:
only about a third of their bulk appears above the surface of the page.

—Howard Nemerov

A short time ago, I came across the following Facebook post by my dear friend and fellow poet, Michael T. Young:

“When people ask what a poem means, it seems they expect to be led back to some point of origin that is a clear thought, articulated as prose, and which then defines the poem. The problem is that poems emerge out of fog. A poet doesn’t have a thought that he translates into words but more often he has a vague feeling, “a sense of wrong, a homesickness”—as Frost called it—that he struggles to find words for. It’s one of the reasons it nearly always stumps a poet to be asked what his poem means. A poet has this vague feeling he struggles to find words for and that poem is the meaning he wrestled out of the vagueness. The poem is the clarity which came out of that fog. To then have someone ask what the poem means is like asking what a dollar bill costs or what the length of a yardstick is. It’s a redundancy and a regression to obscurity. The poem is the meaning that was sought and found. The meaning is found in the destination, which is the poem, and not in the origin, which was the blank page. So, to take a reader back there is to lead them back into the fog, into the vagueness the poem emerged from, not to return to some point of clarity. The poem is the clarity.”

(Reprinted by permission of Michael T. Young.)


The connection Michael makes between meaning and clarity is an important one—it led me to reflect on how well we really do express what we “struggle to find words for.” It may be argued that too much analysis spoils the poem, but this week, to focus on meaning and clarity (along with editing and refining), I’d like you to go through some of your already-written poems, select one that you especially like, and do a bit of after-the-fact analysis.


1. Spend some time with the poem you’ve chosen—read it and think about it. Then answer these questions:

A. What is the meaning of the poem (that is, what did you intend to “say” in it)?
B. Did you have that meaning in mind when you started writing the poem? Did you “say” anything else?
C. Remember that some of the best poems contain their obvious subjects and one or more other subjects—what in your poem appears below “the surface of the page?”
D. How well did you convey the poem’s meaning?
E. How well did you achieve clarity in the poem?
F. Now, spend some time re-working the poem. Think in terms of meaning, clarity, and how you can “say what you want to say” better this time around.

2. Identify a phrase, sentence, or line that represents the poem’s emotional center. What have you included (and should delete) in your poem that’s really meaningless in relation to the poem’s emotional core?

3. Compare your two versions. Decide which is better and think about why. How is your better version “the meaning” you “wrestled out of the vagueness?”


1. Be specific, avoid general terms, phrases, and statements.
2. Think about freshness of expression and how you can better express the truth of your experience in perceptible and actual terms.
3. Make sure your poem has a sense of movement and trajectory.
4. Don’t lose sight of the whole poem while editing the particular. As you prune your poems, make sure that every word, every, phrase, clause, and sentence is necessary.
5. Present your subject exactly as you perceive it. Make your poem “the meaning that was sought and found!”


  1. This week's prompt is full of very useful tips which I have used (and will use again) to re-write an 'already-written poem'.

    I can't number the times I sat down with the intention to write a poem about one thing only to end up writing about something completely different and usually the thing 'really' wanting to be expressed.

    "Write what you know. That should leave you with a lot of free time." — Howard Nemerov.

    Thank you, Adele. :)

    ~ ~ ~


    We scream in the cottage on the hill
    with supposed innocence until deaf to the words
    and, in fact, it is the other that deserve the title of
    'game player of the year'.

    The spiral burns a chestnut falls
    on dried leaves raked together in the garden the smoke
    to rise without a thought the geese their sudden burst
    against the sky so welcome they look the clouds all sail

    above the thatched roof oak beams stone floor
    coals in the fireplace and floral patterned curtains
    on the windows that overlook
    the coming of arguments autumn long.

    ~ ~ ~

    1. Nicely done, Lewis! Thank you for sharing this with us. I always enjoy your poems and your spirit of 'poetry community'.

    2. luv this Lewis. Oh my. It is so true and so real.

    3. Jamie what a lovely phrase — 'spirit of poetry community' — a perfect description of the way I feel about this site and everyone that visits here.

      Risa, I'm so happy that you like the poem — 'Oh my' to your comment.

    4. Well done, Lewis! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Thank you, Adele, for the honor of being included on your blog. Good writing to everyone.

    1. Hello, Michael -- thank you for your inspiring and wonderful words! I have a copy of your book, which Adele recommended some time ago. An amazing collection!

    2. Thank you, Jamie. I'm so glad you like the book and the prompt. It's reassuring to know both are finding appreciative eyes. All the Best. Michael

    3. Hi, Michael, it is a pleasure to read some of your poems and the following lines taken from your above quote are just right — "So, to take a reader back there is to lead them back into the fog, into the vagueness the poem emerged from, not to return to some point of clarity. The poem is the clarity.”

  3. I love this prompt! Great ideas for refining a poem! Thank you, Adele!

  4. I took a workshop that you (Adele) were leading a while back. You read a poem from this book by Michael Young, and it was so fantastic, I ordered a copy as soon as I got home. One of my favorite poetry collections!

    Thank you Michael T. Young, and thank you Adele for this very thoughtful, thought-provoking, and helpful blog post!

    There's always so much great "stuff" going on here!

    1. Thank you, Sandy. This makes my day.

      Good writing to you.


  5. This comment has been removed by the author.