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Poetry Interpretation and Misinterpretation

Updated on January 29, 2020
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

Emily Dickinson on poetry


Meaning in Poems

Many readers believe that poetry is difficult to understand; others believe poetry is not a matter of meaning but individual preference for what a poem means. Over and over again ad nauseam our ears are accosted with the old lie, "A poem can mean anything you want it to mean."

Can football be played anyway you want to play it? How about I want to play it with a basket ball, or instead of end zones, I'd like to run bases. How would that scenario satisfy football fans and players? While all art does allow room for a certain level of individual interpretation just as football allows room for different styles and talents of the players, if basic, common meanings and understandings are not observed, then there is no art, nor is there a sport of any kind. If a poem can mean anything you want it to mean, then all we need is one poem. That same poem can also mean something different to me every time I read it.

If Emily Dickinson's "After great pain" can speak of sorrow to one reader and joy to another, then that same poem could also be about childhood or the aging process or even the beauty of the seasons, and therefore Dickinson would have committed quite a folly in making the effort to create 1774 additional poems that she added to her inventory.bIf one reader takes joy from the poem while another finds sorrow, yet both are deemed correct in their findings, then one single poem is all we need. If those two readers can interpret correctly opposite meanings, then all shades of meaning in between would be feasible as well.

Not All Interpretations Can Be Correct

While there is some latitude for varying interpretations of a poem, based on individual experience and perspective, it is still a fact is that not all interpretations are correct. Most misreading of poems results from the incorrect notion that words always change meanings when used in poems or that words always have double-meanings when used in poems.

Another fallacy regarding poems is that the poet is using come kind of code to hide his/her real meaning, and only an expert can know the true meaning. Those egalitarian souls who find the experts-only knowledge too bourgeois are usually the ones who like to proclaim that a poem can mean anything you want it to mean.

Interpreting Sexuality in Frost's "Birches"

For an example of a ludicrous misreading, let us consider the following lines from Robert Frost's "Birches":

One by one he subdued his father's trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon

These lines are quite literal. They simply describe how a young boy had fun on his father's farm by swinging on birch trees. There is no metaphor, no simile, no symbol. But some readers, tainted by the notion that words in poems must, at least, have double-meanings, read sexuality, specifically masturbation, into these lines. But more importantly, the lines represent the speaker's memory of how he himself used to swing on birch trees when he was young.

The speaker uses this scenario to support his claim that he prefers to think some playful boy had caused the birch trees to droop, rather than some ice-storm, which he had just described. Had the speaker's purpose been to evoke masturbatory imagery in the mind of his reader, he could have done so with imagery relating to specific body parts, but the speaker does not do this; thus the poem's clear purpose is simply to demonstrate the speaker's nostalgic remembrance of himself as having been a swinger of birches and how he would enjoy engaging in swinging on birch trees again.

Readers Often Tricked by Literary Devices

The use of the most frequently employed literary devices such a metaphor, simile, image, personification, and symbol renders many readers powerless when faced with these devices in a poem. Interestingly, the same phenomenon occurs when readers encounter satire, especially political satire. Thus, we have "fact-checking" sites such as Snopes engaging in the ludicrous act of fact checking satire, deeming it "false."

Even Frost's widely-anthologized "The Road Not Taken" tricks readers, who are looking for a clear moral, such as a call for an independent spirit. Without one poetic device, Frost makes a statement about human memory and its penchant for deceiving itself. Yet generations have looked to this poem as a call for non-conformity. Frost himself called this poem very tricky.

Robert Frost


© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


Submit a Comment
  • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

    Linda Sue Grimes 

    4 years ago from U.S.A.

    Good points, John. Thanks for responding.

  • Jodah profile image

    John Hansen 

    4 years ago from Queensland Australia

    Interesting. I believe poets usually have a message to portray whether it is hidden or clearly evident is the key. You are right that the reader should not be free to interpret a poem however they see fit, without being told if they are wrong. I prefer to write poetry so the message is clear. I don't want my writing to be misinterpreted.


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