My future sister-in-law told me that her writing professor assigned her class to "write a poem that has no meaning." I thought that assignment sounded more like a philosophical debate for a lit theory class than a writing assignment.
Before someone could even start writing such an impossible assignment, he'd need to define "meaning." Does he just not want his students to try to write a metaphoric poem? Does he want a poem that's completely literal with none of those hidden layers of meaning? Or does he just want random words written on the page in such an order that they won't make sense? My initial reaction was to tell her to turn in a blank sheet of paper. After all, by writing any words on the page, wouldn't she be giving meaning to something? The words on the page are indicators pointing to other ideas, objects, and abstract concepts, thereby imbued with meaning. Writing anything at all would end up meaning something, even if that something didn't happen to be terribly insightful or poignant.
I don't think writing a poem without meaning can be done. And if someone claims to have written one, I don't think it could really be a poem.
Personally, I love playing the game called "What does that mean?" My favorite responses to that question are, "I don't know," and "What do you think it means?"
Is that fair? Probably not.
But is it true? I think so.
Without trying to delve into too much more lit theory, I think the readers' interaction and the meaning that they give to a piece matter more than anything I ever intended while writing it. From that point of view, an author could never write a poem without meaning unless no one ever read it.
I might be a bad poet for admitting this, but I often write without intent. I don't frequently plan where the poem will begin and end ahead of time, and often I write my best work in that way. Yes, there's always an editing and revision process, but even so, the finished product won't always "make sense" to me. But then I will read that piece at an open mic or a show, and someone will explain how he or she connected to the poem in a way that I never understood before.
To whom should the poem have no meaning? The author or the reader? Maybe this is a better question to be asking.
Since a professor probably won't tolerate the student who will hand in a blank sheet of paper (or the student who will write a poem without turning it in, thereby depriving it of its meaning), it almost sounds like he's instructing his students to purposely write bad poems.
I want to give this professor the benefit of the doubt and hope that he only wanted to make a point, using this as an exercise to illustrate certain theory concepts. But even so, I think that's a poor way of making a point.
In an art form so dedicated to the use of precise language, to ensuring that every word, punctuation mark, and line break means something and contributes to the piece as a whole, why would anyone purposely instruct his students to write something "meaningless"?
T.M. Göttl is a winner in the poetry category for the 2007 Wayne College Regional Writing Awards. The 2002-2003 edition of the literary magazine, The Mill, published some of her work, and she has performed at readings such as Wayne College’s Annual Poetry, Prose, and Acoustical Jam, the Erewhon Poetry Society, Deep Cleveland Poetry, and Gallery 324.