Bruce Beasley is the author of six collections of poems, most recently Signs and Abominations (Wesleyan), Lord Brain (winner of the University of Georgia Press Contemporary Poetry Series Award), and The Corpse Flower: New and Selected Poems (Washington). His latest book, Theophobia, is forthcoming from BOA. You can read “Me Meaneth” in the Summer 2011 issue of KR.
KR: Is there a story behind your KR piece?
BB: I never know quite what it is people mean when they say they don’t know what a poem means. What we call “meaning” seems to me such a small part of what happens in a poem that it seems perverse somehow to focus on it to the exclusion of everything else–the rhythms, the images, the paradoxes and unmeanings, the music of the words. It’s like watching a parade go by and afterwards saying you didn’t understand the marchers’ choice of shoes. “Meaning” to me is the footwear of the poem–functional and important, no doubt, but what about the floats, the drums and trumpets, the extravagant balloons, the garlands of roses?
Last spring I was teaching a seminar on poetry and the work of dreams. We kept bumping up against questions of what dreams mean, what poems mean, what it even means to say that a poem or a dream means this and not that or that. One class I brought in an algebraic equation, and an Edward Hopper painting, and a Mark Rothko painting, and a surrealist poem, and a description of a dream, and the words on the board “My sophomore year of college,” and the Oxford English Dictionary definitions of the verb to mean. We spent an hour talking about how what we accepted to be the meaning of each thing was conditioned by the questions we asked of it: in the Hopper painting, who was this woman? What was she waiting for? Why was she staring out the window so disconsolately so late at night? In the equation, what do we have to do to it to extract the “meaning” of the variable x? In the dream: why is my father’s brain floating in a jar in a shelf in Hell, and who is this Virgil figure who led me there to see it, muttering these are the minds in hell, and there is your father“.
The definition of the verb to mean was meant, of course, to disambiguate the question of what it means to mean. But the definitions–and their glorious processions of quotations, etymologies, usage notes–were at least as mysterious as any of the other artifacts whose meanings we were trying to stabilize. It meant “to convey meaning” (not much help there), to intend, to signify, to portend. Archaically it had meant “to lament for the dead,” “to complain,” “to mourn.” As “me meaneth” it had meant “it grieves me.” I became obsessed by two lines from a 1922 Scottish poem the OED gave as an example: “The speaned lambs mene their mithers/As they wimple ower the bent.” Not knowing what speaned, mithers, wimple, ower, or bent mean, I loved the lines anyway and couldn’t stop repeating them. I wasn’t meaning (lamenting, complaining) their absence of meaning (signification, reference, intention). I didn’t much care what T. S. Cairncross might have meant; I wasn’t “meaning myself” over the words’ unmeanings. (One of my university’s archaic mission statements had called for us to foster “a tolerance for ambiguity,” which I loved.) The definitions meant to delimit the meaning of the word had actually blown that meaning wide open. The word mean suddenly meant more to me than it had ever meant before. Meander, after all, has the word mean locked right inside it.
And since the Cairncross lines were about meaning for a lost mother, this meaning became a meaning for my mother. I had just passed the age at which she had died thirty years before, suddenly, of pneumonia, so I was older than she ever got to be. The speaned lambs mene their mithers.
The archaic meaning of meaning began to bring up for me that never-finishable grieving and all the grievings built into the desire to mean. When we speak to another person, our intentions go out (are broadcast), but they also go out (are extinguished). That tension–between intention’s extension and intention’s extinguishment–is what I mean this poem–and, in a way, every poem–to mean.