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Poetry Classroom: The Burden of Too Much Meaning

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Poetry Strawberry Leaf

Welcome to this month’s poetry classroom, with poet Paula J. Lambert, author of The Sudden Seduction of Gravity. We invite you to respond to the poems we’ll share here—their forms, images, sounds, meanings, surprises—ask questions of Paula and each other, and write your own poems along the way.

The Burden of Too Much Meaning

for Amy Newman

Tart. A flaky fruit pastry.
Tart. A sharp, sour flavor.
Tart. A woman, a whore.
Tart. Say it enough, and it loses meaning.
You just hear the t’s that open and close,
the r that rolls through the middle: tart.
The tender pastry has nothing to do
with the whore, but that doesn’t mean
one won’t be mistaken for the other.
If a man says, “I’ve always loved
a good tart,” we are wont to question:
his meaning, his character, his choice
of words or women. Perhaps the pun
was intended, to entertain the baker,
irritate his wife, or make someone
who doesn’t matter laugh. But maybe
not. Words don’t always convey what
we want, what we mean, what we need.
Like the tart, sometimes they signify
more. Often though, like loss, like death,
like meaning itself, they don’t deliver
enough. So we explicate meaning out of
words any dictionary could have defined:
people, places, and things; transitive and
intransitive verbs. What does it mean
to fall? It isn’t always a drop to the ground,
a plunge, a descent, a tumble. (And it matters
whether or not you were pushed.) Fall means:
broken. Fall means: sick. Fall means: hurt.
Fall means: we don’t believe you. We fell
from the garden. We fell from grace. We
fell among bad company. We fell short.
Fall is a season. Opposite of springtime,
neighbor to summer and winter, fall is in
between. Fall is leaving. Fall is color. Fall
is crisp, clean air. Fall is a young child in
an old sheet, and it is frightening. Fall
is a cornucopia harvest of fruit: apples
for those pastries and pies. Fall is full of thanks.
We are thankful because fall is over. (Is it
over? Define angry.) Stop. What, after all,
is this desire for meaning, this desperate need
to be understood? Think of a woman who is
not a tart. Maybe a baker. Maybe a wife.
Maybe someone you once made laugh.
Falling matters, to her.

Photo by Jenny Downing, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Poem by Paula J. Lambert.

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Your Comments

20 Comments so far

  1. Richard Carr says:

    I like this. I enjoy the philosophical first half, but the second half – the falling – really gathers energy.

  2. Thanks for noting that, Richard. The gathering energy, I think, relates to two things. One is the movement of the illness itself, which I’ll explain separately, and the other is a gathering of real anger related to the frustration of (continual) misdiagnosis.

    Staying focused on energy, though: one concern I had in working on this piece, was how to handle the word “stop.” I had to put a stop to the anger I was feeling, and wanted the word to resonate in the poem. It’s a single word, an important one, and it’s followed by a period. Anger, both here and in the larger, more general, context of human emotions, has to come to a stop at some point, or it does no good. Was a period enough? Exclamation point too strong? Should it be its own line, its own stanza? But those choices would have added too much emphasis.

    In falling, one must get up–right? The “stop” must be followed by a new/different/briefer momentum, gathering energy for the resolution to follow. The word “stop,” then, in my mind, is the turn in the poem.

  3. As to the “philosophical first half” much of that I must explain as relating to Amy Newman’s wonderful book “fall.” I’ll provide a link at the end of this comment. Newman’s collection is based on the 72 different definitions of the word “fall” found in the American Heritage dictionary. I think it’s brilliant, and remains one of my top-two favorite poetry collections ever (the other is Tyehimba Jess’s Lead Belly). I reviewed the book for Ohioana Quarterly when the original hard cover was first released, and it moved me deeply. When the paper back came out, a single line from my review was picked up as a blurb for the paperback version.

    I never let myself look at her book when I was drafting my own—I hadn’t even taken it off the shelf for a couple of years—but because my illness (eventually diagnosed as a severe hormonal disorder) involved falling, falling, crashing-to-the-ground falling as its primary symptom, it was always in the back of my mind. I never wanted anything I wrote to be perceived as derivative, didn’t want to be influenced by it directly in any way. I was trying to tell my own story, after all. I went back and leafed through it only after TSSOG was in its final-draft stage, and even then only to find a line I could use as epigraph for the book itself. It came from a line in the very first poem in the book, one I actually never remembered at all! I remembered most the poems about falling from Grace, the season of the autumn, her mother’s illness as it related to the season of autumn, but the one poem that was actually about falling down I had had no memory of!

    What I used as epigraph is this: A body falls like a story:/beginning, middle, end.

  4. I am particularly taken with the exploration of different meanings of the same word (I recently wrote a poem using “behind” idioms), particularly in the context of different voices, moving from something more strictly narrative to something more personal and then back again.

    You move the poem well from a rather playful take on the word “tart” to the far more serious meaning of “fall” in the context of self, which I think gives extra meaning to the word “stop.” when it occurs. How we define ourselves through our own and others’ words is such a strong theme.

    Punctuation has a lot of importance in this poem. The careful reader has to take it in to consider the facets of meaning. I like, for example, the forced pause created with the comma in the last line.

    I like, too, how you unite at the conclusion the thoughts about “tart” and “falling” and how attention gets directed to that “you” in the next-to-last line before the poem gets us moving forward again.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Maureen. Yes, that comma in the last line pulls a lot of weight! And the “you” is a bit accusatory, still with the anger, a bit: “to her” is emphatic. And necessary.

      I had the final draft of the manuscript complete–final pdf’s, I believe–when I ended up in a last-minute Facebook conversation with Tania Runyan and others about punctuating poems. I changed everything. I don’t think it involved this comma–it wouldn’t have–but others in this poem and throughout the book. I had in mind, roughly, that commas at the end of a line were unnecessary, as the line break would provide whatever pause or caesura was needed. But in proofing, it was much more complicated than that. I ended up being convinced by Tania and Robert Collins that the poems needed to be punctuated pretty much exactly like prose.

      Not all poems do! I finished one last night with a very intentional absence of punctuation. But the narrative structure of this, and most in the book, required the regular rules of independent clauses, etc.

    • Maureen, I’m looking more thoughtfully at your comment after having responded to Hannah’s, and am drawn to what you say here about the “playful take” of one word against the serious of the other, that it gives the word “stop” extra meaning. Maybe that’s something I intuited but couldn’t put my own finger on. I feel like I wrestled with that word ‘stop,’ but everything I tried to do to it wouldn’t work. It was like the words itself wanted me to leave it alone, and I finally did, but reluctantly. I feel like this keeps me a concept of why it makes sense in the poem.

      I feel myself pulled toward this line: How we define ourselves through our own and others’ words is such a strong theme.” That is a pretty big personal theme I’ve been wrestling with a long time.

  5. I’m always thinking about the overlap between jokes and poems. This poem opens with a playful tone–the tart pun is funny, but is right in twisting and challenging the meaning of the word (perhaps in order to own it, or to accept it more fully?). I love the humor in the opening and the moves that this poem makes.

    • It’s difficult to overlap something humorous and something serious, but it’s important to, I think. I appreciate that you noted the humor and are commenting on it, especially the pun. My father was always big on puns, told pun-jokes til they got to be like a game around the kitchen table, someone always trying to take the pun one step further, out-do the previous one. It’s interesting your comments help me to see a connection to my family in the piece that I hadn’t known was there (I was, very much, trying to deal with other issues that involved family).

      I like the phrase you use here: “twisting and challenging the meaning of the word.” Yes! And love even more that it is “in order to own it.” Yes! “To accept it more fully.” Yes!

      Tart by itself is a bitter flavor, but it’s often combined with sweet: think strawberry-rhubarb. Think the candy: SweeTarts. Even the T in the center of the name on the package physically fuses the words “sweet” and “tart” together. It’s a dance of paired opposites.

      I’m very drawn to the idea of balance, that “good” and “bad” can’t exist without each other. “Pleasure,” “pain.” “Anger,” “joy.” It exists everywhere, the pairing of opposites, and if we don’t find the balance in between, we feel ourselves constantly pulled in two different directions: torn asunder.

      There is humor in the poem, but also very real pain. The two have to dance. Think of the dance between laughing and crying: “I laughed so hard I cried.” That’s more common, but I think, too, we find ourselves sobbing to the point where there is nothing left to do but laugh–that odd thing that happens, sometimes, at funerals, or when experiencing some dire form of emotional pain–one becomes the other. One turns into the other, like the softly turning ying and yang that I think exists at the center of the universe. It’s in all of us.

  6. Tania Runyan says:

    Paula, I’ve always envied poets who can craft these beautifully meandering works that hold together while taking us to surprising places. Wonderful work.

    • I take these words as such high praise from you, Tania. Thank you.

      (And I meandered enough through my reply on Hannah’s comment, that I think I shall just let that rest here!)

  7. Mark says:

    The boredom of too much meaning.. Stop..
    I don’t think that I’ve ever focused on how many homonyms I could pick out while reading or writing, as I wouldn’t be focused on the writing or reading. Thanks for the insight.

    • Hm. I’m a bit unsure how to address your comment, Mark.

      It seems at first you mean that the poem bores you and that it should stop…but then you say later “thanks for the insight.” Perhaps if the poem did bore you, that would be sarcasm? But if the thanks is sincere, then I might be misinterpreting your use of the word boredom?

      Could it be that, either way, this serves as useful commentary on the theme of the poem–that clarity of language is so very important, else our intent is unclear and our needs unmet?! ;)

      Do let me know if I’m not following you, Mark. I’d like to be of more help!

  8. Mark says:

    Sorry for the confusion. I’m new to this site.
    Apparently, I misinterpreted that “The burden of too Much meaning” was actually a poem. I interpreted it as an example or lesson on the effect a homonym can have on writing. My comment was simply agreeing that too much analyzing of a word’s meaning or a homonym of it,can also be boring. My point being, that while reading, I’m usually aware of the definition of a word within the context of a sentence before I need to get out a Thesaurus. Distinguishing while reading, whether the author is referring to a tart as a biscuit, a sour sauce or a whore wearing a Fall, which is presently called an extension, is quite important. You’ve succeeded in writing both a poem and an academic guide at the same time, which is quite insightful. Thank you, I’ll be more careful on my interpreting in the future.

    • Thanks for comments and insight, Mark, and if I many speak on behalf of Tweetspeak: welcome! I hope you have or will explore more of the website: they do so many great things in this great space!

      And I’m quite delighted to be presented with a new twist on “fall”–had not thought about a woman’s hair!

  9. lynndiane says:

    I really like this “word study” poem, Paula. Poetry is essentially playing with language and you delightfully play here, with a purpose. I feel the stuff in parentheses (twice) weighs it down a bit? Just my thoughts…I’m here to learn!

  10. Thanks, Lynndiane!

    Yes, parentheses need to be used sparingly in any kind of writing, and they’re pretty unusual in poetry. Using two sets was risky ! They’re both related, though, and are at the opposite end of the spectrum of observation–Hannah mentioned humor at one end, and you call allude to it being a heaviness here.

    What is happening here, I think, as I study it, is authorial intervention. The speaker of any poem is NOT necessarily the same as the author of the poem, but here the author is definitely wanting to nudge her way in. “I’ll still angry,” she’s saying. “This isn’t funny. This isn’t over.”

    Really, this directly connects to the word “stop” which we were discussing earlier. It was that authorial voice that needed to stop. “Don’t nudge your way too far into this poem, or it won’t be resolved.” And a poem has to be resolved. The question, really, was whether to put the word “stop” inside or outside of the parentheses. I was telling myself to stop. But was that me the author saying “shut up, Paula–let the poem do its own work” or me the voice of the poem saying “this word play must stop because I’m trying to make a larger, more serious point.”

    • I need to proofread more carefully before hitting “submit.” Please excuse the typos. In the first full paragraph, that should say “you allude to it being heaviness.” In the second full paragraph, that should say “I’m still angry…”

      Sorry.


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