Wednesday 22 January 2003

Padel, McGuickian and I

Here's the first of 4 stanzas from "The Butterfly Farm" by Medbh McGuickian.

The film of a butterfly ensures that it is dead:
Its silence like the green cocoon of the car-wash,
Its passion for water to uncloud

The poem is discussed in Ruth Padel's "52 ways of looking at a poem" whose description of McGuickian's poetry makes it sound rather like mine. I can see resemblances in the way that we use unstated analogies to bind images together - I've written

Critics wind up their gramophones for icing cakes,
lift doors off their hinges to sleigh through slush

But I've rather turned away from this style of writing. In poetry it's easy for the meaning of words to ramify. What's harder is selectively amplifying some meanings and muffling others. This is done by the control of context. Take as an example the isolated word "flower". It could mean many things though the reader may need to be provoked into thinking of many. In the context of a crossword, "flower (4)" would limit the options - "rose", "iris", etc. In a more cryptic crossword "flower for golfers (4)" would mean "Tees" (a flower in crossword clues can mean 'something that flows').

We perform this 'disambiguation by context' during normal conversation. In more artificial situations we gain satisfaction by finding the answer. A poem often has to provide its own context. This poem's title (significant in setting the context) and first stanza provokes several interpretations in readers but little resolution or integration.

  • A "butterfly farm" is not often like a farm where animals are bred to be killed; they're more like zoos.
  • Perhaps the 1st line means "if they show a film of a butterfly, they don't have a live specimen". Or perhaps a film forms on a butterfly's dead body.
  • "Its" at the start of the 2nd line might refer back to the film (a silent movie?) or to the butterfly (dead therefore silent). One might translate the 2nd line in isolation as "going through a carwash one feels enclosed in the green furry rollers, whose noise blanks out other noises. One comes out feeling reborn as if from a cocoon". "green" can mean "rotting" or "life-giving". A cocoon denotes the death of the caterpilar and birth of the butterfly - transformation. Padel sees "carwash" as a symbol of the modern world, but this doesn't combine well with the rest of the poem.
  • Even Padel avoids saying anything about line 3. What does "Its" refer to now? the carwash? When water cleans it "unclouds". When rain falls it "unclouds". But where's the passion?

I can see some similarities and differences between our structuring methods. Some of my preferences have changed over the years, generally in ways that (for better or worse) assist the first-time reader.

  • Like McGuickian I don't feel that the context needs to be provided before (or even near to) the tricky line - but I'd try to provide context somewhere.
  • Like her (and unlike crossword compilers), I don't think that all meanings except one should be eliminated, but I'd try to deal with the 'transformation' loose end because it's a theme that I think readers might try to pursue.
  • I like trying to force together 2 images. In this poem's later stanzas the idea of stylised sex-roles in Japanese tea houses is introduced. The theme could be summarised thus - "Precious butterflies (painted ladies, etc) bred for collectors in hot-houses are like geisha's in Japanese tea houses". Nowadays this is how I might well begin such a piece, helping first time readers.
  • I'd also reconsider the format. The form of the poem further contributes to the impression that the poet is distracting the reader unhelpfully - why the line-breaks? Unlike the sonnet form this form is not a constraint. Nothing stops her making the lines 2cm longer or making the stanzas 4 lines long. Attentive readers will seek reasons for the author's decisions, try to read meaning into each line-break.

Padel has helped me understand this kind of poetry better, but her unconditional acceptance of the poem glosses over too many questionable features. Rather than explain what difficult lines mean I'd like her to say why the lines were made so difficult in the first place!

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