Although this article focuses on the Sylvia Plath poem, "Morning Song," its six suggestions can help a reader in understanding and appreciating other poems.
1. Words in a poem still retain their meaning: love=love, statue=statue, balloons=balloons.
2. Words in a poem may also take on additional meaning:
"Love set you going like a fat, gold watch."
"Love" in Plath’s “Morning Song” implies "conception of the child," as well as the emotional and sexual attraction that drew the parents together in the act that resulted in the "conception" of the child.
"Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.
"In a drafty museum . . ."
"Statue" here refers to the baby. According to the mother/speaker, the baby is like a new statue in a museum.
"And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons."
"Balloons" here refer to the baby's sounds. The sounds seem to move upward, light, airy, and colorful.
3. Let's consider the following nutshell definition of a poem: A poem is an artistic representation of what it feels like to experience the emotional life of a human being. We human beings are not satisfied with prose when it comes to representing our emotions.
A prose rendering of the poem, "Morning Song," would run something like this: I am supposedly your mother, I conceived you, gave birth to you, but somehow, even as I run to you and care for you, I feel that you are a stranger to me.
Notice how bland and unremarkable this rendering is. The artist/poet is moved to explore those basic feelings and share them in a more specific and colorful medium; therefore, instead of the prosaic claim, "I conceived you," the poet dramatizes it by saying, "Love set you going like a fat, gold watch." Instead of saying, "I am supposedly your mother," the poet portrays that idea: "I'm no more your mother / Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow / Effacement at the wind's hand."
Instead of dully remarking, "I feel you are a stranger to me," the poet compares the baby to a new statue in a museum and later states, "Your mouth opens clean as a cat's." Statues in museums are not intimate objects, and cats are universally noted to be independent creatures. So the point here is that as we are living this life and experiencing it, we react to it in unique ways; we each have our own attitudes toward experiences.
One mother might acknowledge only the closeness she feels for her child, while another stresses the distance she feels. That's where interpretation comes in, and that's also the place where students have been led astray. Students perennially ask their professors, "Are we supposed to give you our own interpretation or the right one?" Students with little experience with poetry imagine that only the teacher knows the right interpretation, and now, if lucky, this teacher will let me state my own idea whether it is right or not.
4. This carries us into the difference between right and wrong interpretation. A poem has two levels of meaning, the surface level, which includes the subject and event or simply what's going on in the poem; the deep meaning (sometimes inaccurately called "hidden meaning" by beginners) which includes the interpretation.
Interpretation results from the reader's discerning the implications of the surface level meaning. Confusing the two levels of meaning, the student settles for the notion that a poem can mean anything. It's one thing not to realize in the poem "Morning Song" that the speaker is a new mother speaking to her newborn baby, and not realizing that the mother seems to feel two ways about her baby.
And some students do not discern this elementary level of meaning; some students have voiced the opinion that the speaker is a bird speaking to the sun, or a grandmother speaking to a grandchild. Of course, after a closer look, most students come to understand that the speaker is, indeed, a mother speaking to her newborn. But others remain in a vague haze, continuing to believe that "if I want, I can still think it is a bird talking to the sun."
5. Your own life experience will affect your understanding of a poem. But it will affect the interpretation more than it should affect understanding surface meaning, if you have grasped the suggestions offered in 1-4. Especially that the words still have their same meaning, although they may take on some additional meaning. Obviously, a woman who has given birth and experienced nurturing a newborn will interpret meaning from the Plath poem that an inexperienced woman or man may not.
But the inexperienced young woman or man is still able to recognize a mother speaking to an infant. Take the line, "The midwife slapped your footsoles": why would a bird make such a remark to the sun? Would a bird listen to the sun's "moth-breath" all night? Imagine a bird claiming to be "cow-heavy and floral" in a Victorian night gown. Obviously, the recognition of such common images is not denied the inexperienced in childbirth. Only the inexperienced in poetry reading find these words and images baffling.
6. The purpose of poetry is not primarily to convey information. A poem requires a special reading, different from a newspaper article that you read quickly for the facts. A poem requires repeated readings/listenings. As does your favorite song. You don't listen to your favorite rock group to get the latest news. You listen to be transported by the music, to experience the emotion of the lyric, to be entertained by the drama. It's the same with poems. You read them to get back your emotional experience.