Poetry and Meaning, and Can a Poem Just Be?

archibald-macleish-quote-a-poem-should-not-mean-but-be“What exactly does this poem mean?”

That’s the question someone just posted today on one of my YouTube readings from more than a year and a half ago. I’m glad those readings still get attention. I was recording a poem a day during National Poetry Month for a couple of years there, and between that and other random readings I have something like 50+ poetry readings on SoundCloud and 150 on the Tube. So it’s nice to be reminded of poems I liked like this one by Tony Hoagland.

Strange aside: I was thinking this morning how my friends from Northern Ireland might have the pleasure of seeing the ornamental pear trees on my street in full bloom when they come to visit in April. How fortuitous that this poem came to my attention today, in which the video contains both scenes from the trees in my neighborhood (not dogwoods, as in the poem, but close as I could get), and the trees and scenes along the road near the North Coast of Ireland where we last traveled in 2011.

I’ll give you the recording first and then my response to Mike’s question after.

My slightly edited response to Mike’s question:

I’m trying to think of how to answer your question without sounding enigmatic, or worse, pedantic. Archibald MacLeish said, “A poem should not mean, but be.” That might not be helpful, as the meaning and being is made up of the words in the poem, and if it works for you, it works. If it doesn’t it might be a failure in the reading or in the writing.

“What does it mean to you?” is a question that you probably won’t find helpful either, but its point is that you have to find in the poem what is there for you to find. I am guessing that at least you heard something in the words that intrigued you, pulled you in? That’s good. Let it do that. There isn’t always hidden meaning to find. Much of the time it is what the poem says, the emotions it evokes, the new paths that the metaphors might set your thoughts traveling down.

When a poem strikes me as having some significance that I cannot quite pinpoint, I like to spend time with it. Get to know its lines, it’s rhymes and sounds, it’s similes, etc. Usually that’s how the poem reveals itself to me, when I’ve slowed down enough to actually pay attention to it. I like how Billy Collins in his “Introduction to Poetry” says that you have to walk around a poem’s room and “feel its walls for a light switch.”

But I can tell you a bit about what this poem means to me. The poet tries to dismiss the idea of everything in a poem meaning something, that bit about the road: “that doesn’t mean the road is an allegory,” he says. But he is probably being tricksy and putting that thought in our heads, thus making it a metaphor for whatever we need it to be.

It’s that dogwood at the end of the poem, “losing its mind.” It keeps “making beauty, and throwing it away.” Isn’t that what we do? The relationships, the good moments that we fail to treasure, like that dinner at the beginning that he says he was boring during. Missed opportunities? And yet, there are more opportunities ahead, no? Because the tree doesn’t just make beauty and throw it away, it keeps “making more.” For me, that’s what this poem is about, despite what we have wasted, or ignored, there is always more beauty ahead. And maybe the beauty seems to have no purpose. Maybe the beauty is the purpose?

Does that help? What kind of thoughts does the poem bring up for you? I bet you can get even more out of it. Thanks for the comment. I’m eager to see what your response is.

Here again is the text:

“A Color of the Sky”
by Tony Hoagland

Windy today and I feel less than brilliant,
driving over the hills from work.
There are the dark parts on the road
when you pass through clumps of wood
and the bright spots where you have a view of the ocean,
but that doesn’t make the road an allegory.

I should call Marie and apologize
for being so boring at dinner last night,
but can I really promise not to be that way again?
And anyway, I’d rather watch the trees, tossing
in what certainly looks like sexual arousal.

Otherwise it’s spring, and everything looks frail;
the sky is baby blue, and the just-unfurling leaves
are full of infant chlorophyll,
the very tint of inexperience.

Last summer’s song is making a comeback on the radio,
and on the highway overpass,
the only metaphysical vandal in America has written
in big black spraypaint letters,

which makes us wonder if Time loves Memory back.

Last night I dreamed of X again.
She’s like a stain on my subconscious sheets.
Years ago she penetrated me
but though I scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed,
I never got her out,
but now I’m glad.

What I thought was an end turned out to be a middle.
What I thought was a brick wall turned out to be a tunnel.
What I thought was an injustice
turned out to be a color of the sky.

Outside the youth center, between the liquor store
and the police station,
a little dogwood tree is losing its mind;

overflowing with blossomfoam,
like a sudsy mug of beer;
like a bride ripping off her clothes,

dropping snow white petals to the ground in clouds,

so Nature’s wastefulness seems quietly obscene.
It’s been doing that all week:
making beauty,
and throwing it away,
and making more.

“A Color of the Sky” from What Narcissism Means to Me. Copyright © 2003 by Tony Hoagland.

Haunted Porch Flashback

I am still too old fashioned to catch up with the Throwback Thursday craze, but since it’s Halloween on this Friday I’m in good shape for a haunted Flashback Friday!

My boys and I used to have a tradition of decorating the porch and scaring the pee out of local kids on Halloween. Parents loved us. Ah hem. . .

Anywho, I decided to switch up the spooky sounds for a bit to bring out the dancing fools in my ghastly ghouls last time. Wow, this was going back four years to 2010.


When Great Trees Fall: Remix

Black and white image of a fallen tree on an i...

Lake Claremont, Western Australia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the beginning of June I had recorded a poem on SoundCloud in honor of Maya Angelou, and I wrote a about how her work had influenced me. I don’t really have anything new to add to that this evening, except to say that it was my friend Jody who brought the poem to my attention. And upon reading it, I knew I had to record it.

The poem paints an emotional picture of how the deaths of great people, ones whom we admire, affect us. I don’t think Dr. Angelou ever thought of this poem as something that would refer to her own self. But despite criticism and prejudice, great is exactly what she was.

You can find the entire text of the poem “When Great Trees Fall,” read the article, and listen to my original recording of it by clicking right here. But I would also like to share with you a remix done this week by my friend, the caretaker, the Hausmeister as he mysteriously calls himself. He has done me the honor before of laying down tracks with my voice, and I always enjoy his creations. It’s fascinating what emotions can be heightened and complimented when spoken word meets music and mixology.

What a joy and a privilege when ones love of an art inspires another in his or her own work. Thank you for letting me share this, my friend.

100,000 Hits and a Face Lift

A Small Milestone

A small but encouraging milestone.

It happened on the eve of my birthday a couple of weeks ago. I was waiting for it, but it was a pleasant birthday gift just the same. And my aversion to meta-blogging aside, I finally have time to tell you about it today.

So I am hoping my long-term readers will forgive my obvious self-absorption and extreme narcissism as I get this post out of my system.

My period of months of working two jobs is now about to settle into mostly one job and more time for my poems and projects, so this seems like a good springboard into the next phase of my blogging activity.

Luckily I managed, quite by luck, to catch the moment on the stats page when The Dad Poet hit the benchmark of 100,000 hits. Honestly, it took quite a while to get there, and I feel sheepish when I think about how I started this blog as a combination of exercise and therapy in September of 2008.

But then again, those first four years were little more than three to four thousand hits each. It wasn’t until I started blogging in earnest and sharing my videos for National Poetry Month in 2012 that the whole thing suddenly burst into blossom, bringing over six times more traffic than before. And it’s never returned to those early low numbers. .Not bad, I thought, for a part-time poetry blogger who throws in a bit of nature and a great deal about his family.

We focus too much on stats because they can be so utterly fascinating. Unfortunately they can also be puzzling. My best day ever was last September when search engines returned tons of hits for my review of Richard Blanco’s inaugural poem “One Today.” Odd thing was, the inauguration was not in September, and I’ve never been able to figure out why the spike happened that day.

A rise in views always happens in April when I’m posting readings of favorite poems every day, either on SoundCloud or YouTube. But this also happens around Valentine’s Day whether I post or not because folks are looking for love poems. It seems that love poetry is always a popular search, no matter the time of year.

top posts yesterday

This graphic shows the popularity of posts just yesterday, and right behind the main pages are posts from my series Love Poems You Wish You Had Written. This sort of thing is ALWAYS the case here on the blog.

No, seriously, every day. Usually, as yesterday, E. E. Cummings leads the pack with Walt Whitman gaining right behind. Sometimes old Walt passes his young protegé and often Wendy Cope, shown in third place here, cuts loose and breaks ahead of everyone.

There is also a graph where I can see who is searching for what, and what Bing-ing and Goog-ling leads readers to my blog. Although lately with many of Google’s search terms encrypted there is less information than there used to be.

Still along with the others I’ve mentioned, searches for Maya Angelou, Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman,” and the illustrations by Charles Keeping get tons of searches. A blogging hint: If you use illustrations, always include the hidden description of the image you upload. This helps you show up in image searches.

And while the list below is nicely representative, there are times when very strange search terms lead people to your site. That may be worth a meta-blog post of its own some day. The Laughing Housewife sometimes posts ones that bring quite a chuckle.

Search engine termsI’ve been thinking for sometime that the Dad Poet blog was in need of a face-lift and a more grown-up look. So in honor of the 1000,000 hit milestone I bring you this new theme. Many of the header images from now on will be nature shots from here in Pennsylvania, including the one above which is a view of my home town here where the rivers meet. It was taken by my good friend John Helwig and I am grateful for his permission to use it. I’ll incorporated more on sort of a random rotating basis in the future, but this one feels like home.

I also did quite a bit of tweaking and agonizing over the details in the header, footer and sidebar. They are of course not the most important aspects of this blog, but I want them to be relevant and useful. Cosmetically I am very pleased with the way it all looks now, though there is still some serious updating to do in the bio pages, particularly on the Poet page regarding recent publications and upcoming events.

And don’t worry, I know many of you have expressed your fondness for photos of my sons and me. This will continue of course, but they are getting much bigger these days, and I’d like to grace the pages of the blog with some newer and better quality photos of them. I don’t want them to be merely background decorations.

To those who have been reading here for some time now, I am grateful. Thank you for your eyes, a tiny spot in your day that could be spent doing other things (especially when it comes to this sort of navel gazing post). And thank you for all the likes and the comments. I look forward to embarking on a period of my life now where I can once again be a little more involved in this WordPress world and the writers and readers here that bring me joy. Thank you!

Saturday Song with Puddles Pitty Party

puddlesLess than a half hour left in my Saturday and so I bring you a Saturday Song feature that needs little to no introduction. And to be honest, it’s more fun with next to no explanation. Maybe you’ve seen him already, but I just fell in love with this seven foot clown this week, and man, can he sing!

You can look up Puddles, the Sad Clown with the Golden Voice at PuddlesPityParty.com, like it says on his suit case, but the moment you watch one of the few videos on his YouTube channel, you will find scores of links to videos taken by fans, and unsuspecting strangers on their phones and cameras at various clubs from Seattle, Washington to Bethlehem, PA, including this sad moment in Atlanta. One of my favorites is a very serious, and apparently utterly spontaneous rendition of “Dancing Queen” at Joe’s Coffee Shop in Nashville.

This Saturday Song below was introduced to me by a friend on Facebook this week, and if you don’t recognize the original, you’ll have to look up Lorde’s version. But if you listen to the radio at all, even just in the store, you’ll recognize the lyrics quickly enough. And while Weird Al’s parody was priceless, THIS one, with Puddles and Postmodern Jukebox is undoubtedly my favorite cover of “Royals:”

 Bonus Clip–Puddles, Acapella:

“The next suitable person you’re in light conversation with…

David J. Bauman:

This is one I’d like to try. Funny, and frightening how true this is of people. I’ll have to put Wallace’s book on my reading list.

Originally posted on Words for the Year:

“The next suitable person you’re in light conversation with, you stop suddenly in the middle of the conversation and look at the person closely and say, “What’s wrong?” You say it in a concerned way. He’ll say, “What do you mean?” You say, “Something’s wrong. I can tell. What is it?” And he’ll look stunned and say, “How did you know?” He doesn’t realize something’s always wrong, with everybody. Often more than one thing. He doesn’t know everybody’s always going around all the time with something wrong and believing they’re exerting great willpower and control to keep other people, for whom they think nothing’s ever wrong, from seeing it.”

- David Foster Wallace, The Pale King

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