Monday, 11 October 1999

The Scale of Meaning

A look at some of the issues that confront poetry readers when they search for meaning


They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but what about a poem's meaning?

One school of thought assumes that poets have a clear vision in their heads which they should translate as clearly as possible into words so that the reader can share this vision. This is the "Signal Processing" idea of communication, where writers aim to give the reader no freedom and ideally the medium should be transparent.

Contrast the "Signal Processing" idea with what happens when composing music. I suspect that Mahler didn't have feelings which he translated into sound so that listeners could translate them back - he thought directly in music. I'm sure many poets think directly in words too.

Further along the scale are Rorschach ink-blots. What people see in these shapes might well have nothing to do with what (if anything) was in the mind of the creator.

So where in this spectrum running from inkblots to textbooks does poetry stand? When Arnold said that "all art aspires to the condition of music" I think he meant that poetry, like music, should strive to be untranslatable, and that it needn't have overt messages and "meanings" - it shouldn't be inkblots or "Signal Processing". Rimbaud amongst others tried writing such poetry, but I don't think it's the only valid kind. Indeed, I think within a single poem different strategies can be at work, some lines providing information and some being more open-ended. For instance Henry Reed's "Naming of Parts" mixes lyricism with a lesson

   This is the safety-catch, which is always released
   With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
   See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
   If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
   Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
   Any of them using their finger.


Of course something may be meaningful to someone without being a conscious communication - an overheard sigh or a souvenir, for example - but many people assume that poetry should aim to communicate, and are disappointed when the conventions of communicating are broken. After all, isn't it the writer's duty to make texts as clear for readers as possible?

Texts differ in the amount of effort the writer expends on helping the reader. The way textbooks impart meaning isn't so applicable to poetry. To me, poetry is something to do with the idea that the means of expression is part of the meaning, that language can't be transparent. Paul Valery said that "If what has happened in the one person were communicated directly to the other, all art would collapse, all the effects of art would disappear", a sentiment which I largely agree with.

In expressionism I think that authors concentrate on the author->words phase, unwilling to sacrifice accuracy for the sake of clear communicating. It's not just in the arts where this situation arises. In maths too people writing proofs sometimes prefer a short, elegant treatment (foregrounding the beauty of the objects described) rather than adopting a more wordy approach. It's hard enough saying what you mean without fussing about whether every reader will understand.

Even in situations where the poet is conveying information (describing an event or emotion), there are good reasons for not being like a textbook. Just as a good (or Socratic) teacher might encourage pupils to think for themselves and learn by guided exploration, so the poet might try to tease readers into the poem, ambushing them. Sometimes even descriptive poems work by springing surprises or challenging convention. A poem might be a lobster pot - an unadorned object that entices then restrains a delicacy, constructed from materials to which anyone has access. Just as a pretty picture need not be of pretty things so Frost, for example, can make poetry out of banal conversation. Or a poem might be a sounding board - when the the reader's mind is strummed, it reinforcing some ideas, and damps out others. Using these techniques doesn't show a lack of interest in communicating, rather they show a realisation of the need to maintain readers' interest.

But what does it mean?

Whether or not the author has things to say, whether or not an effort was made to help the reader, the final product is a poem usually unaccompanied by the poet. In signal processing the receiver extracts the original message from the signal, getting rid of the noise and interference. For the poetry reader however, the words cannot be eliminated to leave pure meaning; the 'noise' is part of the meaning. Should the reader even try to retrieve a 'text-book' meaning? I think so, but only as a first option. Reading a poem isn't just a matter of recovering what the poet meant. Indeed the phrase "intentional fallacy" was coined by Wimsatt and Beardsley to describe the fallacy of determining the meaning or evaluating the achievement of a work of art in terms of the author's intentions. Poets are not always best placed to assess or even understand their own poems. If we find a poem funny, but the poet meant it to be taken seriously the poem's still funny - it's the text that we should take notice of rather than the poet. After all it might be a found poem or computer-generated. And besides, if you've found a meaning, how do you know there aren't more? Minsky suggests that something "seems meaningful only when we have several different ways to represent its different perspectives and different associations ... In other words, we can 'think' about it ... if we understood something just one way, we would not understand it at all. That is why the seekers of the "real" meanings never find them. This holds true especially for words like 'understand'."

There are so many types of understanding and theories of meaning that critics tend to avoid the terms altogether. Before one starts using the term "meaning" one needs to establish that it is appropriate. It's tempting to think that because the constituent words of a poem can convey textbook meaning, phrases do. I don't believe it. Phrases from Naming of Parts may sound as if they're from an army text-book but in the context of a poem their purpose isn't informative - the phrases have lost their text-book meaning. What kinds of things can have meaning? Damasio for example believes that emotions can create meaning. Others believe music can have meaning. A garden spade has a purpose but not a meaning, though it doesn't make much sense to says it's meaningless - it's not a code or a symbol. The same applies, it could be claimed, for a piece of music or poetry. It doesn't need to have meaning to be beautiful. Looking for meaning may be looking for the wrong thing - perhaps we should look for purpose or beauty.

Whose Fault?

Some say that meaning's created by the poet, others that it's constructed by the reader (the poet's intentions being irrelevant), others that the text is a product of the society and so society generates and consumes meaning, the poet being a mere conduit. How hard should we try to find meaning which might not be there?

Here are the steps I go through

  • Is there a textbook meaning? - I first see if there's a clear narrative, argument or punchline. Sometimes I can't see one initially but my expectations are raised by parts of the poem. It may just be a matter of providing the connecting material. Sometimes giving up the search for a unified viewpoint helps to make the poem work.
  • Is there some knowledge I lack? - Sometimes allusions are clearly signposted, sometimes (perhaps unfairly) they're not. Sometimes there are particulars that don't really matter - the "bluetit" may not have particular significance, any little bird might do, so just generalise!
  • Am I missing the context, the big picture? - The piece may be ironic or an allegory even if this isn't stated in the text, or the text may come from another culture or era.
  • Am I reading it the wrong way? - Some poems have lots of twists and surprises, but unless you keep trying to guess the next word or line you won't appreciate the fun. And some poems have to be read out loud.

If these fail I try to analyse where meaning is breaking down. I go back to basics and build up. Are there words I don't understand? Is each sentence ok?

Sometimes (but only after having gone through the above options) I decide that the poem does something for me (it has, as Minsky suggested, many ways of being looked at), but all I can say about it is point out patterns or make the kind of comments that wine tasters make.

Other times I blame the author. Some authors can't even express simple things clearly. I suspect some people are drawn to poetry workshops because they are poor, frustrated communicators. Other poets don't care whether they're read or not, and I suspect others are hoaxers. And of course there are the "so-what" poems, poems which have a clear meaning but nothing worth saying.

Sometimes one option is to ask the poet! When someone asks of one of my poems "What does it mean?" I think the questioner usually means "Say it in another way". Sometimes I can, but more often I can only comment on parts of the poem, providing (as anyone else might, though I'm in a favoured position) references etc.

The sort of poem I like to write looks like an inkblot but the more that people look at it the more they come to the same conclusion about what the poem does. The readers think they're free, that they've been creative, but in fact the poet has been guiding and manipulating. Instead of specifying a path that must be followed, the poem designs a space to be explored, a theme park with various amusements. The reader is encouraged to explore and is assumed to be experienced at finding their way around.

If, as I said earlier, the poets' views don't matter then why do we invite the poet to speak at our workshops? Well, we're not a poetry appreciation group, we're writers. We can learn from each others' experiences of writing poetry, and discover more ways of looking at poetry. I find it interesting to hear how a poem developed, and how what a poet writes can differ so much from what a reader reads. But hearing what the poet says doesn't help me with the poem - unless the poem doesn't work unaided - in which case it's an unsuccessful poem.

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