I don't think a poem is "meant" to change the way you see things. A poem is an object of obsession that is worked on for its own sake until abandoned. If it is for purely personal use and it is successful, it may do what needs to be done only for the author. "What needs to be done" in this case is to serve as what psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott in another context called a transitional object or transitional phenomenon. It helps soothe a frightened child like a teddy bear (that would be the 'transitional object' part) or a lullabye (which would be the "transitional phenomenon" part).
If the poem can't be understood by anybody else, but it's good enough to soothe the writer, its job is done and everything is fine. Its meaning is in the soothing, and it holds that for one person only, who doesn't know how to or doesn't care to or isn't obsessed enough to take the poem further. That's one heck of a terrific poem if a poem can do that. Most folks will never see any poem of that sort unless it belongs to a son or a daughter or a very very close friend. Its purpose has already been fulfilled, and sharing it is pointless.
It is made by groping around with the primitive magic a child has among sounds and rhythms and pictures and making something pleasing, something soothing out of those things that provides direct relief from distress. It's pretty tailored to a single physiology.
Actual poems that mean something to other people have to be able to speak the primitive language that everybody in that language group speaks. You skip over a stage, because while a very young child can sooth itself with proto poems of chanted sounds and rhythms, once you get language, it's almost always one language at a time. You will sometimes get three and four year olds singing or talking what's called plain-chant, listing the things they're going to do to the monsters under the bed or what they have to do during the day. These still have the function of relief of anxiety and fear with transitional objects or phenomena. The exact meaning doesn't have to be known for the soothing to take place.
Frank McCourt, for example, the author, talks about learning the prayer "Hail Mary" as a child and only later realizing that there was no monk swimming through the prayer, but instead the phrase, "amongst women." It made more sense, he felt foolish, but the soothing of all those prior repetitions of the prayer had still been there, as much as possible for a young boy.
Still later, if you still find yourself writing, something happens to what it takes for you to feel the poem is complete. I myself have never worked to put meaning into a poem, I've only worked on the poem itself, the language, the sounds, the sense, the swing, the feel, the smell, the pictures, the movie of it, and I depend on my sense of closure to tell me when it's done. (I'm sure there are others out there who write other ways, but I don't know how to go about it.) If in fact you're paying attention to those details, then who you are, your personal demons and obsessions, the very forces that shape you as a person psychologically, emotionally, archetypally and spiritually are coming to bear on that same piece of work and are being integrated into it. You can't help it.
What you are, what you are reaching for and what you hope to become are there as well. When the poem is finished, there the whole thing stands. It doesn't mean anything, Stephanos, it is something. If it's a good poem, then every time somebody goes back to it they will see somebody coming to terms with the unbearable edge of experience, sad, ecstatic, clear, whatever it may be at that particular moment, and soothing themselves through it. A poet may do this in all sorts of ways. You have to write the poem yourself to discover what that way is this time.
Even if you've read it before, if a poem is a good one, you'll feel the top of your head come loose because once again you've arrived at an unexpected place and once again you don't know quite how you've gotten here. That's when you'll feel most tempted to ask, "What does this poem mean?"
The poem is a "symbol." If a symbol could be paraphrased, it wouldn't be a symbol, it would be, instead, a "sign." You can translate signs, like code, into something else that means the same thing. A Cross or a Mogen David is a symbol. If I asked you what either one meant you would probably say it's a symbol for Christianity or it's a symbol for Judaism. You could still spend close to forever trying to explain the Cross as a symbol and what that symbol meant. The more you explained, there more there would be to explain. The same with the Star of David. The more you know, the more there is to say, the more connections there are to make. I once knew a guy with a horror of discussion of symbolic material. I sympathized. The guy called those discussions "everything is everything" discussions.
As for the poet, the poet's far better off writing the next poem than trying to tell people what to think about the last one, especially about what it means. You might have gotten the 16th century writers of Allegory to do otherwise, or Dante, all wonderful poets. Every time I try to read them, however, I find them not to my personal taste and my eyebrows fall off.
A reader ought to be able to follow what's happening in a poem. A poem, as Ezra Pound said, should be at least as well written as prose. ( I only wish Pound had been able let folks be clear about what was happening, but that's my value and not his.) A poem ought to be a pleasure to hear, with wonderful sounds and effects that don't distract from the sense of the thing, and the overall effect should be clear and definite. The poem ought to yield the same surprise and pleasure with each reading and reveal more of itself with time. The poem should give the same sense of comfort as a treasured friend. The overall effect of this should yield a sense of the symbolic value of the poem, how the fit of these elements changes the reader's experience of the world.
Any attempt to pick one element or another of the symbolic structure of the poem to designate as "the meaning" produces a sense of the reduction of the sense of the wholeness of the poem. It is a reductio ad absurdum that in effect damages rather than enhances the overall understanding of the poem, which is best sensed as a whole.
I don't know if I'm rising to the challenge of clarity here or not. I love your use of theology as lit crit. I've tried to keep the discussion rolling as best I could here. You do have a lively way of thinking about things. I wonder how Brad's taking all this, and the rest of the folks. I hope we're not skewing the discussion too far away from their interests. Best to you, your wife and kids, BobK