“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
MEMORY LOVES TIME
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:
and throwing it away,
and making more.
“A Color of the Sky” from What Narcissism Means to Me. Copyright © 2003 by Tony Hoagland.