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POTW: On Meaning in Poetry

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

We were very tired, we were very merry–
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable–
But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
We lay on a hill-top underneath the moon;
And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.

We were very tired, we were very merry–
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;
And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,
From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;
And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,
And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.

We were very tired, we were very merry–
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
We hailed, ‘Good morrow, mother!’ to a shawl-covered head,
And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read;
And she wept, ‘God bless you!’ for the apples and the pears,
And we gave her all our money but our subway fares.


One of the first things I tell my students when we begin to look at poetry is that they don’t need to worry about what a poem means. So many of us are intimidated by poetry because we feel pressure to decode and decipher the poem in order to understand what its secret message is–and if we can’t do that we feel as if we have somehow failed at poetry altogether. We are so fixated on what the poem might mean that we miss out entirely on what the poem is in its own right, and what the poem calls us to imagine as we read it.

This mindset that we should approach a poem concerned primarily with what it means has unfortunately led many to approach poetry, as Billy Collins puts it in his poem“Introduction to Poetry”, wanting to “tie the poem to a chair with a rope / and torture a confession out of it. / They begin beating it with a hose / to find out what it really means.” A wonderfully vivid and disturbing, metaphor, isn’t it?

Now of course I am not saying that meaning is not important to poetry, or that poetry should not try to communicate meaning. But I do think it is possible to focus too much, and too soon, on the complicated, layered issue of meaning in poetry. When we do this we do violence to the poem itself; in treating poetry like science, we “murder to dissect.” Understanding poetry is not primarily an exercise in semantics (at the beginning) as much as it is an exercise in imagination.

As you read through Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Recuerdo,” try to create as vividly as possible the scene that is painted for us in the poem. The poet has given us some very definite, specific images that we can use to guide us, but she has also given us room for our imaginations to participate.

Rather than try and explicate this poem, let me simply ask a few questions:

Do you hear the sound of voices and laughter echoing out across the dark water? Do you feel the warmth of the fire on your hands? Do you sense the motion of the ferry beneath your feet? Do you feel the cold skin of the pears in your hands, chilled by the morning air? Do you feel the slow warmth touching your face as the “dripping…bucketful of gold” sun rises? Do you feel the giddiness that accompanies seeing such beauty when you have been awake the whole night, and your over-tired consciousness is tingling with life and intensity? Do you see the tears glistening in the eyes of the shawl-covered head? Do you feel–really feel–the freedom of giving your money away because you know that it cannot make you any happier than you already are?

One of the extraordinary things about poetry and storytelling is that we are able to bring another’s words to life in our imagination, and in so doing make the poet’s experience our own. Have you ever heard a story over and over (maybe a family yarn told every year at Thanksgiving) of some event that you were not a part of, but feel as though you had been there because you have re-lived it in your imagination so many times before? That’s sort of how I feel about this poem. My wife and I have said this poem aloud to our children some hundreds of times, and each time I find that the words have not grown stale, but rather with each repetition the enjoyment is deepened. I think that this poem is primarily a recollection of a beautiful memory (‘recuerdo’ means ‘I remember’), and inasmuch as our imaginations allow us to truly participate, we are able to glimpse and enjoy that beauty–even though it wasn’t ours to begin with. We don’t need to approach this poem obsessing over ‘what it means;’ we can begin by simply seeing and experiencing and being drawn up into such beauty, for this is the root from which any meaning must grow.

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