Everything we know about the poem and Holden's interpretation of it is to be found in Chapter 22 when he is visiting his little sister Phoebe. Evidently he likes Robert Burns' poem, which is also a song, but has misinterpreted it. He tells her, "Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all....What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff--I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them....I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all."
The poem is actually about a river named the Rye. People had to wade across it at a certain shallow ford, and girls would typically hold their skirts up with both hands to keep them from getting soaked. A young man might steal a kiss from a girl in midstream because she would be helpless to resist. ("If a body kiss a body, need a body cry?) Burns at one time was probably the most popular poet in America. He was often writing about love and flirtations. Another of his poems which was turned into a popular song is "Green Grow the Rashes," which is about the happiest times the poet ever spent being spent among the lasses.
Significantly, at the end of the novel Holden decides to let Phoebe ride the carousel by herself and experiences an epiphany while watching her which seems to indicate that he has given up his fantasy about being a catcher in the rye and is ready to accept the reality of living responsibly and prosaically in the adult world. He says:
The thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall off, they fall off, but it's bad if you say anything to them.