Given only casual thought, the difference between a poem's purpose and meaning may not be immediately obvious. The two parts are so closely linked to one another that they usually work hand in hand. However, when you consider the definitions of the words, the distinction emerges. Purpose deals with the poem's intended use or result, while meaning deals with the poem's content and message.
How to Find Purpose and Meaning
Simply put, the poem's purpose is the reason why the author picked up the quill, pencil or pen or sat down at the keyboard in the first place. To determine purpose, ask yourself what the poet's intent was when she began to write. For example, did she want to inspire, entertain or teach? The poem's meaning, on the other hand, is its message to an individual or collective readership. To figure this out, ask yourself what the poem made you think, feel, see, hear and taste, and what you learned from the poet's words.
Can You Ever Really Know a Poet's Purpose?
Because poetry is an enigmatic art, it could be said that figuring out a poet's true purpose is impossible. Short of a face-to-face interview or a written critique of her own work, there is no way to tell with perfect accuracy what the author was thinking at the time. Even with an interview or written analysis as evidence, it could be claimed that the poet changed her mind about her work or that she misremembered. However, poets do leave clues to their intent throughout their poems. If a poem contains humor, at least one of its purposes must be to entertain. If the poet includes a heartfelt call to action, she must be trying to persuade you to act. If the poem has a melancholy tone, the poet is trying to elicit that same feeling from the reader. You will never know for sure, but you can make an educated determination.
The Search for Meaning in Poetry
Since it is so complicated to figure out why an author wrote a poem, it should come as no surprise that it can be equally difficult to determine what a poem means. This is, of course, one reason that reading poetry is enjoyable. It can be like a puzzle trying to figure out a writer's depth of meaning from that which is said or left unsaid. When searching for the meaning of a poem, it is important to consider each word the poet uses. Poets tend to choose their words carefully and to write with precision. Think about every possible meaning each word can have. Think about alternate meanings that phrases could take on. Pick every piece apart, and don't assume anything. That way, when you put it all back together in your mind, you will have an accurate assessment of the poem's meanings. You can debate with others about those meanings to garner a deeper revelation about the message.
The Reader of Poetry
At times, inference must play a large role in interpreting the meaning and purpose of a poem. Yet an inference cannot be made without incorporating the reader's own prior knowledge, experiences or bias. Because of its interpretive nature, poetry nearly begs readers to include pieces of themselves in their conclusions. While these inferences can be a viable part of a poem's interpretation, readers should beware of using them exclusively. When in doubt, stick with the poet's words. Dig deep and learn from them, rather than rushing to a snap judgment that is based too much on your own perspective.