Must a poem have a meaning?

“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?”

I love those lines by Robert Browning though I am not quite sure what he means. They sound grand in their limitless ambition. The irony is the speaker is the painter Andrea Del Sarto who has no illusions left. He knows his wife isn’t listening to what he is saying but is waiting for her lover. But he doesn’t object. In the last line of the poem, he says:

“Again the Cousin’s whistle! Go, my love.”

It’s pathetic, letting his wife go to meet her lover, after those heroic words that “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp”. But read the next line, “Or what’s a heaven for?” Does he mean heaven’s outside man’s grasp? I don’t care what he means, they sound grand.

Am I being foolish? But I am not the first to think it doesn’t matter so much what a poem means.

TS Eliot thought so too. Terry Eagleton, reviewing the poet Craig Raine’s book on TS Eliot, writes in Prospect magazine:

The meaning of a poem for Eliot was a fairly trifling matter. It was, he once remarked, like the piece of meat which the burglar throws to the guard dog to keep him occupied. In true symbolist fashion, Eliot was interested in what a poem did, not in what it said.

Yay! Poetry should stir feelings that can’t be explained in any other words than the poet’s own. Poetry has to be word-perfect. Like Eliot’s famous opening lines from The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats      
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …       
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

The words are magical in themselves, leading us on almost like a movie scene with an incantatory soundtrack. Do we want to break that spell by asking, “But why are the women talking of Michelangelo and not Picasso? Or Tiffany’s?” I don’t.

Poetry is something that you can’t put in any other words. Like these last lines from my favourite poem, Fern Hill, by Dylan Thomas:

Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
          Time held me green and dying
     Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

Beautiful, aren’t they?

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