A Way With Words

“It’s good. I like it. You sure have a way with words.”
“Thanks.”
“What does it mean?”

That always makes me smile, and a couple of answers pop to mind: “How the hell would I know? I only wrote it.” Or perhaps, “Well what does it mean to you?” Not good. People want an answer; they want clarity and feel entitled to it. But maybe I’m not the right person to answer the question. Maybe they’re not the right person to ask it.

If a cook is exploring a new recipe and asks you to try the dish, you might say Thank You, and report that you enjoyed it or not. But you don’t lay your napkin neatly on the table and say, “Gee that was yummy. What was it supposed to taste like?”

You probably know what Stephen King wrote in his book On Writing, that writing can be a kind of telepathy, a psychic connection of Meaning between two minds, across time and space. Or something to that effect. I have cited that postulate before in this blog, but I’m skeptical.

Let’s imagine I sit down with my copy of The Complete Poems of Robert Frost, a cup of coffee, and with my vague memories of my college studies in English. And I turn to my favorite poem – which is everybody’s favorite poem:

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.


What does it mean? It’s one of those poems that often gets called “deceptively simple,” and it’s true. Most people who read it are very much deceived. Robert Frost died when I was 2, so we can never know. …Well that’s not true. We don’t need to ask the artist, we can explore the art for ourselves. Let’s take a couple of jabs at it.

  1. Winter is peaceful. Horses are cool. It’s nice to live in the country and use words like “village.” Back in the 1920s, queer meant strange, perplexing. And we have to keep moving and get our chores done before we can go to bed.
  1. The woods are a metaphor of the psyche, which stands apart from tangible life – the home in the village. The falling snow is the passage of time. As we grow older (the nights grow longer and darker), the dark woods of death – the event horizon of consciousness – seem more real, impending. We pause to consider mortality. The woods are lovely: we have a yearning for the peace of our inevitable passage into the woods. Then there are the harness bells; for whom do the bells toll?

If I’m being honest, it’s always been simply a poem about quietude and peace for me. It reminds me of Christmas, with the bells and the snow and the darkness evening being Winter Solstice. But if I were pressed for deeper meaning, I’d say it’s a rich and elaborate poem about death and the awareness of death; the darkness beyond the lights of the town for all of us.

Around the same time, e e cummings wrote a poem about a girl,

whose least amazing smile is the most great
common divisor of unequal souls.

Nah, that’s Death, e e. Death is the greatest common divisor of everything. It’s what we all have in common. Beyond that fact, I don’t think any two of us look at life and death and Meaning in exactly the same way. And the right answer to all of it may very well be 42.

So I’ve come to suspect that Meaning isn’t rightfully my job; not my department. Please hold while I transfer your call. Honesty is my job, and diligence, and the best craft I can bring to bear. But Meaning is a task for someone else. And here’s a thought that might seem twisted: maybe meaning doesn’t belong to that certain reader who’s asking me to explain. If they’re not finding the Meaning, then the piece has reached the wrong audience. The Meaning belongs to someone I haven’t met and never will. Maybe that’s what Stephen King was getting at.

So despairing of a psychic connection with readers yet unraised, untutored, I have little cause for hope, but that someone years hence finds a scrap of my writing, and it will mean something to her that I can’t even imagine.

“A book, once it is printed and published, becomes individual. It is by its publication as decisively severed from its author as in parturition a child is cut off from its parent. The book “means” thereafter, perforce, — both grammatically and actually, — whatever meaning this or that reader gets out of it.”

– James Branch Cabell

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10 thoughts on “A Way With Words

  1. I like your take. This is one of those writing issues that I keep pondering. I always come back to the idea that meaning is subjective and variable. If a reader gets something out of a passage that is different from what the author meant, that doesn’t necessarily mean the author has failed.

    However, I do think you can judge an interpretation for being sloppy; failing to fully examine the implications of what is in the text. One of my go-to examples is a romance that is full of abusive dynamics. I think a good reading of Wuthering Heights will never just laud Cathy and Heathcliff as a couple. It will also acknowledge the destruction portrayed in that book. Interpretations might disagree on where things went wrong, but they should agree that something went very wrong somewhere.

    On the writer’s end, there is a responsibility to consider the implications of your own work. If you write a couple like Cathy and Heathcliff and have everything end in tears, you’ve thought through the implications of those dynamics. If you write something like Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, where things start out bad and then you go to the work of showing a real change in character, you’ve thought through the implications of those dynamics. If you write two bickering, backstabbing characters and then they get together at the end and it’s all flowers and sunshine, as a writer you have failed to be honest about what a good relationship looks like.

    Just my take. Awesome post.

  2. I enjoyed A Way With Words. Frost’s poetry has stirred new thought for me for a long time. Most think of his work haing answers. I think his work provides good questions, Someone has said: “A good question is never answered. It is not like a bolt to be tightened down, but like a seed to be planted and yeiding more seeds to sprout further thought.” c

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