- Last night I saw upon the stair
A little man who wasn't there
He wasn't there again today
Oh, how I wish he'd go away...
--William Hughes Mearns
Hughes Mearns, who wrote this poem, was an educator around the turn of the century who dabbled in child psychology, especially as it relates to creativity. He pretty much invented "creative writing" as it's taught in schools. He thought that kids were naturally creative and eloquent, and they just needed to be shown how to let the natural poetry of their language come out as they put their thoughts down on paper. He said, "Poetry is an outward expression of instinctive insight that must be summoned from the vasty deep of our mysterious selves. Therefore, it cannot be taught; indeed, it cannot even be summoned; it can only be permitted." (quoted in Creative Writing And The New Humanities By Paul Dawson) He also talked about writing as a "transfer of experience" from writer to reader. He sounds like a fascinating person, and I'm surprised I didn't hear about him in my Education classes at college.
As for the man who wasn't there, I love how ambiguous this poem is. Is it a bit of nonsense rhyme? Is it talking about something prosaic like his shadow? Is it a ghost or fairy or spirit of some sort? A "man in black" government agent? A scandal that has little basis in reality, but won't stay out of the tabloids? A reference to some sort of mental illness? The answer is YES. It doesn't matter what he had in mind when he wrote it (though it might be an interesting bit of trivia to know), when I read it, it can mean any of those things or something else entirely.
Here's a good quote on that topic from a blog called Knocking From Inside:
- One way that poetry can communicate is to make clear, simple statements with which the reader either agrees or not. Another way, perhaps more characteristic of poetry, is to deploy images or ideas whose “meaning” is not completely specified; this allows the reader to, as it were, fill in the blanks. Readers will associate these signifiers with whatever seems most emotionally immediate or relevant to the reader. Thus readers can tailor-make their own “meanings”, within a framework suggested by the poem.
This is why we sometimes read a poem written by a complete stranger and feel as though it was written expressly for and about us. In a sense, it is; as readers, we become co-authors. We write our own thoughts, feelings and experiences into the spaces between the poet’s lines.