How Does a Poem Mean?

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“How Does a Poem Mean?” New Era, Aug. 1987, 44

How Does a Poem Mean?

A true poet can take something as ordinary as a fish and show us its brilliance by coloring it with words.

In keeping with the New Era tradition of featuring an article on the creative arts in our contest issue, John Ciardi, a professional poet and literary critic, discusses the craft of writing poetry. Mr. Ciardi served as poetry editor of the Saturday Review for 15 years and is probably best known for his numerous books of children’s poetry and his classic translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. While writing from outside an LDS perspective, Mr. Ciardi has been himself a prolific producer of works “of good report” and “praiseworthy.” His insights will prove extremely valuable to the Latter-day Saint who is attempting to apply the 13th article of faith [A of F 1:13] to the written word. This article was excerpted from talks given as a guest lecturer at Brigham Young University on October 24, 1963 and April 15, 1965 Mr. Ciardi died in 1986.

When I began teaching at the University of Kansas City in 1940, I spent a lot of time on the trains, going back and forth between Kansas City and Chicago. My salary just about kept the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe rolling. I would often find myself in the club car with the world’s traveling salesmen. They meet there. They would begin a ritual—a very tight ritual. It always seemed to have the same opening phrase. They would say, “What are you in?

One man would say he was in glue, and they would talk about that for a while. Another man would say he was in brass doorknobs, and they would talk about brass doorknobs for a while.

Then they would turn to me and say, “What are you in?

At first I used to invent things. I had a feeling that it would take too much explanation to tell a club car full of salesmen that I was a poet.

But one day, for the fun of it, when the question came to me, “What are you in?” I said, “I am a poet.”

I found that it took very little explanation. As a matter of fact, there was a long silence, in which people detached and regrouped. After a suitable interval, I went into the main body of the car and sat down. Soon a salesman slid into the seat next to mine and began talking in a low voice. He had something that he wanted to say to me that he could not say to other salesmen. This experience was repeated many times. Often the salesman would have a poem in his wallet. I think I have seen some of the world’s most miserable and most uninspired poems out of the wallets of salesmen.

Always they would make the terrifying mistake that all bad, over-enthusiastic poets make—the assumption that if the subject is large enough, it does not matter whether or not the poem is good. If you can just take the largest possible subject and begin the poem “Truth is … , “Beauty is … ,” “Life is … ,” you have got to end up beautiful. I am afraid such a poem is more likely to be a disaster. The size of the poem is not determined by the size of the subject. It is determined by the size of the mind that is trying to enclose it. The value of a science is not decided by the size of the subject it studies. Otherwise microbiologists would be insignificant people and only geologists would really count. They deal with mountains and whole continents.

I had a lovely exchange at the Saturday Review with, I guess, a sweet lady. I had rejected some of her poems. I have to reject a lot of them. I get about 500 a week, and I can only accept two. But she took my rejection personally, as many people do, and wrote me a hot letter. I had not remembered the poem, but she said, “I suppose you rejected my poem because it was about God.”

I had to reply. “Dear Madam: No, I did not reject your poem because it was about God. I rejected it because I could not conquer a feeling that you were not equal to your subject.”

I think it is likely to go that way often. The impulse of the poem is fine, but there is another life behind it. An oration is not a poem. A poem is some sort of a living performance. It comes out of live sources in us. And everyone has these live sources. But, for example, great human feeling will make nothing out of the cello until your fingering arm and your bowing arm have gone to school. I submit that it takes at least as much discipline to write a poem as it does to play the cello well. The feeling is there, yes, but the communication of the feeling is a skill—a way of doing. It starts with joy but involves difficulty. I think it does, in a way that was best stated by Robert Frost when he spoke of “the pleasure of taking pains.” That is the aesthetic joy.

I have come to the marvelous Salt Lake Valley many times. Certainly no one needs doubt the sincerity, the sobriety, the strength of purpose of Mormon history. I am outside of that; but I love choral music, and I collect recordings. I have a number of albums of the Tabernacle Choir. They are not singing sobriety and solemnity; I think they are singing joy. And I don’t think you can be serious without joy. You can’t be serious enough. And it is that that poetry deals with. Poetry is not inherently moral or immoral. It is like a heartbeat. There is no moral or immoral heartbeat. If you are dedicated to bad ends, a healthy heart will help you function in an evil way. If you are dedicated to good ends, a healthy heart will help you function in a good way. In either case it is a resource.

You have to have that sense of play. Robert Frost said, “A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” Moreover, there is a kind of wisdom that cannot be approached except in the act of joy.

There is a poem called “The Fish” by Elizabeth Bishop. This is a long, skinny poem—the lines are short. It goes down the page in a thin way with a very prosy rhythm. The way a poem looks on the page is important. That is part of the structure of the thing.

The poem is about catching a fish in a pond, a huge fish, the monarch of that pond. It had six leaders broken off in its lower lip. It had outwitted any number of fishermen. I am a miserable fisherman. All fish are smarter than I am. I can’t outwit any fish; I’ve given it up.

But, Elizabeth Bishop caught this very wily fish and held it out of the water and looked at it. She said of the fish—this is in the course of a much longer description, but this is the passage I focused on:

I looked into its eyes

That were far larger than mine

But shallower and yellowed,

The irises backed and packed

With tarnished tinfoil

Seen through lenses of

Old, scratched isinglass.

Now just as a joy of using your eyes, take that passage into your imagination. I have tried to teach students to look. I used to wish there were courses called Elementary Looking, and Intermediate Looking, and Advanced Looking. Every good poet educates your eyes because you don’t see with your eyes; you see with your brain. The eyes are just windows letting in impulses. And then, where there is an organization behind it that receives this thing, you see with it. You see with your intelligence, and I say it takes a tremendously intelligent person to see as well as Elizabeth Bishop sees.

I have had students who could look at a fish and get the beginning of that description. They could get as good as, “I looked into its eyes.” Anyone can say that. But then a good student could say, “that were far larger than mine, but shallower and yellowed.” A good student could go that far. But it is a rare person indeed who has enough eyes to write the next few lines: “The irises backed and packed with tarnished tinfoil.” See all of those rods and cones; that is just the texture. The analogy is exact and the coloration is exact—the tarnished tinfoil. And then because the air is cloudy in the fish’s eye, “seen through lenses of old, scratched isinglass.”

Now there is a description! She falls in love with the looking. And the poem ends with, “And I let the fish go.” There is a sudden release of joy. That is an affirmation. You are not being preached to. It is like hearing the choir sing, “And I let the fish go.” It is a praise—it praises the world. What is the world for but to be lived in and responded to? What is so important about looking at a fish’s eye? I suggest, as a first answer, that anything significantly looked at is significant.

But that is only a beginning, that is only an evasion, because what does significant mean? Putting it another way, a thing is significant that teaches us something more about ourselves. Elizabeth Bishop teaches me with both a sense of delight and a sense of shame. She teaches me how well it is possible to see the world, and then she shames me that I haven’t looked better, that I haven’t entered my own act of joy sufficiently. She educates me. She makes me want to identify more closely. She enriches me in this way. And I am glad for her, and there is a shudder of pleasure when she says, “And I let the fish go.” I want to let all fish go in this way—it is that affirmation.

It seems to me one of the reasons so many of you do not like poetry is that the school system has pushed a great deal of poetry at you—not because of its performance but because of its subject matter.

I would like to submit to you that poetry need not necessarily mean anything. it is fine when it does, and it always will mean something—except in light verse—but start with light verse. For example, my good friend David McCord had a poem I always cherished. It goes:

Big Chief Watapotami

Sat in the sun

And said, “Me hot am I.”

Sat in the shade

And said, “Me cooler.”

Such is the life

Of an Indian ruler.

Now, in two good sentences that make sense, state the meaning of that poem. There is none, you see.

Another piece of light verse that I think makes this point extremely well is by Margaret Fishback. It goes:

Oh, somewhere there

are people who

Have nothing in the

world to do

But sit upon the


And use the very

special breeze

Provided for the

people who

Have nothing in the

world to do …

You can go on for as long as you like. But the poem is not about the Pyrenees. The Pyrenees are in there to rhyme with breeze, and breeze is in there to rhyme with Pyrenees, and this whole thing is an exercise in self-delighting form. If it has self-delighting form, it can then go on to say something.

I think we all agree that some of the most enduring statements made about the human condition on this planet have been made by poets. But they have been made only and always by those poets who kept their whole joy in picking the words because they match one another, in finding the rhythms that flow, in the joy in metaphor, and the joy in form.

I am trying to say that the music of this world is played by musicians who love their instruments, and the instruments of poetry are diction, metaphor, rhythm, and form, and to throw all of that out for categorical discussions on the history of ideas, I think, is to lose too much. I am not against the study of the history of ideas, except that that is a history course. It is not a course in poetry.

Just for the frivolous pleasure of poetry, if you like, there is a marvelous sonnet. It is one of my favorite tricks in poetry—a skeletal sonnet. You have probably studied the sonnet at one time or another. Here is a trick played on the sonnet. This sonnet contains one word per line—nothing but the rhyme scheme. That is about as thin as you can get with the sonnet. I have tried for years to find another 14 words that would perform this trick well. No luck. This is called “An Aeronaut to His Lady”:















That is all there is to it. But in those 14 words the poet has observed the a-b-b-a, a-b-b-a, c-d, c-d, e-e rhyme scheme. The first eight lines ask a question; the next six lines answer it. That is the octet and sestet. It divides properly, and the tone of it is the tone of the sonnet. That is a tremendous lot to get into 14 words.

Now supposing instead of that he had sent a wire, saying, “Walking too slow; am flying, love.” You see what would be left out of it. All the joy of the performance. And that is the difference.

Let me give you an exercise in pure poetry. I was looking up the word widgeon at one time. I had known the word for a long time, but I could not point to any specific duck. I looked at the roots, as I like to do, and I couldn’t figure out what it had come from. So I turned to the dictionary, and it said, “origin uncertain.” I already knew that, so I had made no gain. And then it said, “Any of various aquatic fowl,” which is a miserable thing to do in a dictionary. I can’t go around saying, “Look at one of ‘various aquatic fowl.’”

I had the word widgeon in mind, and as I was looking at the page, I saw another word, wicopy. That turned out to be a word derived from the Algonquian Indians, the name of a particular tree. I found myself saying, “A widgeon in a wicopy—a widgeon in a wicopy.” It wants to syncopate, doesn’t it? The sounds are a bit of fun. But I am not going to let you accuse me of being stupid. The writer has to pretend that he is smarter than the reader. I know that ducks don’t roost in trees, so that gave me a second line. “A widgeon in a wicopy, in which no widgeon ought to be.” But I gathered myself, and now I obviously needed to go for w’s, and what came up was “a widowed widgeon was.” Widowed, I thought, was a good choice. It has a sounded and a muted w, so I had a pattern. “A widgeon in a wicopy in which no widgeon ought to be, a widowed widgeon was.” I like the way it syncopates.

Now I had a pattern, and the joy of it was to see if I could repeat the pattern without stumbling, and the word that came to me was the key word for the next pattern, wickiup. You know what a wickiup is. You take willow branches or something and make your frame. I began, “While in a willow wickiup”—that gave me lots of w’s. And now I needed a w Indian to keep this going, and I finally settled on Wichita. But I wasn’t sure Wichita was a word for a tribe or for a river or for an area. I looked that up in the dictionary, and it said Wichita was an Indian tribe, so I was safe. The dictionary served me that time. And it gave me the next pattern: “While in a willow wickiup, a Wichita sat down to sup with other Wichitas.”

Now here is something you do in poetry. I had said, “a widowed widgeon.” Now, if you widow a widgeon in a poem, you have to explain why. You have to account for it. It is like a theme in music. You have introduced it; you have to answer it. That is the fun of the performance. I got myself into trouble, and I came out with what I submit is an exercise in logic. The whole thing goes:

A widgeon in a wicopy

In which no widgeon ought to be,

A widowed widgeon was.

While in a willow wickiup

A Wichita sat down to sup

With other Wichitas,

And what they whittled as they ate

Included what had been of late

A widgeon’s wing.

‘Twas thus

Now that isn’t finished. It hasn’t rhymed yet.

The widgeon in the wicopy,

In which no widgeon ought to be,

A widowed widgeon was.

It seals itself.

Whenever I have come to Salt Lake City and the surrounding area, I have found it a magical country. I am sure you have, but perhaps you are so used to it you have stopped seeing the magic of it.

I am astounded every time I see the sea gulls here. They don’t belong here. I was brought up on the coast and am used to sea gulls, but what are they doing here? I think they forgot to leave when the ocean did. They still smell salt and hang around. This is a poem that I hope will serve, if you can receive it, as a way of refreshing your look at the countryside around you. At least it is the impression of the miracle I have observed that you can see everywhere. The poem is called “Orders.” That is a short way of saying the order of things, the order of nature.

Gulls in Wyoming, Utah, follow the plows,

Picking the small jet lives from the turned furrows.

It half unfastens nature, their being there,

A mile up and a thousand in from the sea.

In Gloucester, yes,

In Manila, Capetown, Dover,

By all the salt sharp names of the edges;

And slide beyond the edges,

Following wide and easy on the wind,

The turned wakes. They’re at home,

Where all mind trespasses and prays,

And the impossible is a habitat.

There a man can answer with a sound from true salt

The blue dream a gull is.

But these landlubbers—half hen and half buzzard—

Picking black lice out of the desert’s pores;

Call these things gulls?

I call them bleached crows!

Or did, until I saw the sea still leaving—

First in red desert country, then in Salt Lake;

It must be salt deceives them from themselves.

Somehow they smell it but can’t find the water.

How could they guess at years ago by millions?

I think they’re queerly lost by a right instinct.

Or else they’re only waiting,

Their instinct sound, to be on hand

When the next ocean starts here.

I wish they’d go to sea where they belong,

And let the hawks and buzzards have the desert

In their own terms. As if it meant to last.

And then, again, I am glad they’re queerly home.

Their presence teaches possibility another range,

And every man a moral:

Put wings to a stomach and all the world is reached.

The central method of gaining knowledge we have is our language. I do not think it is the function of the poets to give us little homilies in it, but to try to work the language to the limits of its resources, because when it is so worked, it has to be humanizing; it has to be a way of knowledge, because it is as deep inside ourselves as any part of our being.

Illustrated by Richard Hull

Photography by Philip Shurtleff