How does a poem mean?

from Chapter One, John Ciardi, How Does a Poem Mean?

For “what does a poem mean?” is too often a self-destroying approach to poetry. A more useful way of asking the question is “how does the poem mean?” Why does it build itself into a form out of images, ideas, rhythms? How do these elements become the meaning? How are they inseparable from the meaning? As Yeats wrote:

O body swayed to music, o quickening glance,
How shall I I tell the dancer from the dance?

What the poem is, is inseparable from its own performance of itself. The dance is the dancer and the dancer is the dance. Or put in another way: where is the “dance” when no one is dancing it? and what man [sic] is a “dancer” except when he is dancing?


So for poetry. The concern is not to arrive at a definition and to close the book, but to arrive at an experience. There will never be a complete system for “understanding” or for “judging” poetry. Understanding and critical judgment are admirable goals, but neither can take place until the poem has been experienced, and even then there is always some part of every good work of art that can never be fully explained or categorized.


Any teaching of the poem by any other method owes the poem an apology. What greater violence can be done to the poet’s experience than to drag it into an early morning classroom and to go after it as an item on its way to a Final Examination? The apology must at least be made. It is the experience, not the Final Examination, that counts.


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