Sunday, 10 February 2013

Poetry and Communication

The two nouns in the title sometimes thread through fractious discussions. Both terms are rather slippery, and depend in turn on notions like Meaning, Language and Understanding, discussion of which can easily hijack the debate. Also once failure of communication becomes an issue so does blame, arrogance, incompetence, and fraudulence. Here I'm going to restrict myself to mentioning just a few points, some borrowed from my other articles.


Language is used for many purposes other than information transfer. It's sometimes a replacement for pictures in order to record. People talk to themselves, cry out in pain, pray, chant, seduce, and tell jokes. Language can perform the role that nit-picking performs in a troop of apes. It can establish and reinforce power hierarchies.

Does poetry have as wide a range? I don't see why not. For instance, it's used to help people remember how many days are in each month, and to release emotion when a princess dies. Much of the time it's only read by the poet, if that (John Stuart Mill wrote that "eloquence is heard; poetry is overheard"). That other people read the poem may be incidental - after all, a person playing a round of golf needn't be watched for the activity to be worthwhile.


I heard an educationalist suggest that the word "understand" should be banned in the educational world because it has too many meanings. Can you play tennis? Do you understand tennis (the quantum mechanical reasons why balls bounce)? Can you add numbers? Do you understand 1+1=2? (remember that Bertrand Russell in Principia Mathematica took a few hundred pages to establish it). Do you understand Mondrian? Can you hence explain a Mondrian to someone who dislikes him? Do you understand melody or how much your lover misses you? Some poems might start as if they can be understood the way a novel can, but end up like a Mondrian.

Wittgenstein wrote that "We speak of understanding a sentence in the sense in which it can be replaced by another which says the same; but also in the sense in which it cannot be replaced by any other". How can one test understanding? And when understanding merges into appreciation, how can one know if someone likes a work?

Meaning and poetry

For some people a poem needs to be paraphrasable to have a meaning, and the poet knows what the meaning is. Others feel that neither the reader nor the author need "understand" the text for it to be considered effective

  • "Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood", T. S. Eliot
  • "The chief use of the 'meaning' of a poem, in the ordinary sense, may be ... to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him" T.S. Eliot
  • "Four major thinkers, Darwin, Marx, Frazer and Freud, gave grounds for the belief that the artist often does not know what he is doing", William Empson


If understanding/appreciation is hard to assess, it's harder still to assess a communication's success.

It's common for readers to believe that a writer knows what s/he means and puts it into words so that others can learn what s/he knows. The simplest signal-processing-based diagram to represent this is

   author -> text -> reader


   author -> sound -> listener 

In the text-mediated version especially, there is no direct contact between author and audience. At best the message will arrive undamaged, but noise in the communications channel is always a risk.

This is the model appropriate for learning facts from an encyclopedia, but poetry often plays a different language game. The simplistic model above can be developed to model more complex situations in several ways.

  • The message is usually in a code of sorts (a protocol or language). Conversion to and from this code may be inexact or at least difficult
  • The diagram is "New Criticism" in its purest form. In practise the author works within a context (era, country, gender, lifestyle) and the reader within another. The reader may or may not be aware of the author's context, which can lead to misunderstandings
  • Sometimes extra stages are added, the author creating a narrator who's producing words for an implied addressee
  • The situation where the reading happens is significant, and should be included in the schema. Found poetry (and the Art equivalent) works because of this
  • "Even if a poet is pragmatically dedicated to transmitting a message, the temporal delay involved in preparing an artifact (poem as message) plunges the activity into a perceptual realm distinct from the intersubjective circuit of a communications environment", Jed Rasula, "Syncopations"

The signal processing metaphor breaks down for poems where the "noise" (the words, the medium) is part of the message. Rather than signal processing, game theory has been used to model the poet/reader relationship

  • "the reading process can be represented as a one-sided bargaining process of imperfect information [with] mutual interdependence (reflexivity), fixed order of play, one-sidedness of the communicative process, possibility of limited pre-play communication (e.g. by means of publishing, advertising, generic conventions), inability to make side-payments or binding agreements", "The Role of Game Theory in Literature Studies", Peter Swirski in "Empirical Approaches to Literature"

Seeing all this scope for errors it's easy to forget that most of the time communication works just fine when it's intended. Poetry presents (often deliberately) greater problems than usual, exploiting these problems - "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", Valéry,

Deliberate difficulty

Sometimes authors are trying to communicate something difficult in the easiest way possible, or they feel that an initial difficulty makes eventual understanding more likely, or they believe that a poem's "meaning" is constructed by the reader (the poet's intentions being irrelevant), or the text is a product of the society and so society generates and consumes meaning, the poet being a mere conduit. Authors may want to produce work that should be approached partly like a Rorschach blot, a riddle, or a melody ("The poet is not there to share a poetic communication, but to stimulate an imaginative speculation on the nature of reality", Barbara Guest). Even if an author's aim is to conventionally communicate, there are several reasons why they might make texts in some way "difficult".

  • Recent work by Oppenheimer has shown that texts in a font that was hard to read were better understood by students
  • "the problem of the poet, if he is to produce work which forces his readers to experience real perception, is how to make recognition difficult and perception inevitable. The poem should give an immediate impression of having a 'message' function, in order to achieve unity, but not more than an impression need be provided at the most accessible 'levels' of the poem", "Poetic Truth", Skelton
  • "One encounters in any ordinary day far more real difficulty than one confronts in the most 'intellectual' piece of work. Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are?", Geoffrey Hill
  • "The relationship between an artist and reality is always an oblique one, and indeed there is no good art which is not consciously oblique. If you respect the reality of the world, you know that you can only approach that reality by indirect means", Richard Wilbur
  • "The general public ... has set up a criterion of its own, one by which every form of contemporary art is condemned. This criterion is, in the case of music, melody; in the case of painting, representation; in the case of poetry, clarity. In each case one simple aspect is made the test of a complicated whole, becomes a sort of loyalty oath for the work of art. ... instead of having to perceive, to enter, and to interpret those new worlds which new works of art are, the public can notice at a glance whether or not these pay lip-service to its own 'principles'", Randall Jarrell
  • In poetry, unlike in other forms of discourse, obscurity might be an aesthetic principle; indeed, poetic discourse enjoys a special privilege: it may run counter to the fundamental requirement of language, namely communicability, and may infringe some of the basic rules of language. ... It is able to depart from the requirements of coherence, cohesion and consistency with ideas expressed in the text, or indeed with external knowledge. It does not establish any information known both to the originator and to the recipient that would ensure a grasp of the information that follows (see Clark and Clark, 1977). It will frequently depart from the literal sense of the words that it uses and endow them with new meanings. And despite all this, simply because it is a poem, it will be perceived as a significant text (Iris Yaron-Leconte)
  • For the person who reads a poem, obscurity is one of the elements that create 'magic'. Unlike in the case of non-poetic obscure texts, the fact that understanding is deferred is part of the aesthetics of obscurity and this in itself is thus linked to the experience that the poet seeks to create for the reader (Iris Yaron-Leconte)

John Ashbury and communication

In an interview in The Spectator in Feb 2013, John Ashbury made some points that seem amenable to the signal-processing metaphor

  • "After listening to a piece of music we often feel a sense of satisfaction and understanding. Poetry aims for this as well, but it's limited by what the words mean, whereas in music, the message is exact and intelligible but without being paraphrasable like language"
  • "On the one hand I have always felt the most important thing that a writer should do is to write something that people will understand. But I also want to write poetry that expresses my usually tangled thoughts without condescending to a reader. "

I'm not convinced that "in music, the message is exact and intelligible". I can't even think of how one could in general test whether this is so (other than with program music). However, I can appreciate that sometimes the literal meaning of individual words can interfere with the poem's intended meaning. The second comment is one that I imagine most writers would agree with, but of course it depends who the people are and in what sense they understand. Elsewhere, Ashbery has said "I'm ... mildly distressed at not being able to give a satisfactory account of my work because in certain moods this inability seems like a limit to my powers of invention. After all, if I can invent poetry, why can't I invent the meaning?", so I'm unsure quite what he means.

Rothko and communication

It's interesting to consider Mark Rothko's views on how his Art communicated. He wrote that "The fact that people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions ... the people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when painting them. And if you say you are moved only by their color relationships then you miss the point. I am interested in expressing the big emotions - tragedy, ecstasy, doom".

In this phase he seemed to feel that there were right and wrong ways to approach his work. I'm not convinced by the rigour of his tests on his communication successes, though his statements about technique show that the "signal processing" metaphor can be applied to non-figurative work. He was aware of some reasons for misunderstandings -

  • "Since my pictures are large, colorful, and unframed, and since museum walls are usually immense and formidable, there is the danger that the pictures relate themselves as decorative areas to the walls"
  • "We favor the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth"

Extracts from a Facebook discussion

All the above is a prequel to commenting on some Facebook points made in Feb 2013. I'll categorize the comments (not the writers) along mainstream/non-mainstream (NMS) lines

  • Comments that either side could have made
    Once the necessity of communication is reduced, and the definition of "communication" widened, there's common ground.
    • Clare Pollard - I do feel that if your main aim is to communicate, and communicate something difficult, then you have a moral obligation to clarity - If I have trouble understanding a writer when they're trying to communicate something relatively simple, I distrust their more "difficult" work. I realise that this can be viewed as somewhat analogous to rejecting a Turner Prizewinner for their inability to draw perfect freehand circles.
    • Angela Topping - A good poem will communicate to people in different ways at different times on different levels. A bad poem will stink whether it communicates or not
    • Angela Topping - Communication in the sense of being at oneness - communion - would be more accurate for a poem
    • Jon Stone - NMS poetry isn't intended to be noncommunicative - it's intended to communicate different things through a different way. But surely you've got to give people more of a hand up
  • Non-mainstream comments
    There's a tendency to devalue communication as commonly understood, with a greater emphasis on letting readers share the (true?) experience of the poem's writing
    • Tim Cumming - If you've got something really important to say, you're generally going to use forms of 'communication' other than a poem. Poem does something else. You experience a poem, ... It MAY evoke a message of 'communication' but that's not its primary purpose
    • Steven Waling - 'communication' isn't just about 'getting your point across' or 'giving information.' Abstract art 'communicates' but you can't say what it's about; the same with lots of poetry. Dull poetry wallows in communication; it doesn't have anything else to attract us, I feel. Poets also aren't just communicators, they're also explorers

See Also


  1. There are levels of understanding. I understand what ‘E=mc squared’ signifies but I don’t understand it in a meaningful way; I couldn’t use the formula to build a bomb because I would have to understand a lot of other things to enable that to happen. So it’s probably better to say that I know what that formula means rather than saying I understand it. I couldn’t stand up and talk for even sixty seconds on the subject. That said there are a great many things that I have personal experience of that I couldn’t put into words but that doesn’t mean their significance has bypassed me and in that respect I agree with Eliot. Even my own poems—the words that I’ve chosen are the best words I could come up with to convey what I’m trying to convey but not necessary to explain whatever I’m writing about. And the key word in that last sentence is ‘trying’ because communication requires a transmitter and a receiver and even if I managed to find the perfect words to say what I’m trying to say if my reader is incapable because of a lack of experience or willingness or ability to speak English to decode my message then we’re doomed. In poetry something is always lost in the translation but then something is always added to make up for that loss. It’s a big step for a writer to accept that and move on. It took me a long time. I used to get so frustrated by readers who did ‘get’ what I was on about.

    I’ve just written a long article on a long Ginsberg-esque text which I shared with the author as I sometimes do before posting and he remarked—as have others—about my tendency to take interpret things literally; he suggested that I must be “left brained” and I know where he’s coming from. The fact of the matter is that every time I’ve taken the test the result’s been the same: slap bang in the middle. On the surface my poems are little intellectual exercises but without the emotional resonance that I’m hoping will come when a reader is tossed into the mix they’re lifeless. What gets me is when people who are clearly right brained judging by the kind of poetry they write don’t get my stuff. I would’ve thought they had exactly what the poems needed for them to sing.

  2. I think reader who don't often read poetry apply reading strategies that have worked for them before when reading informative prose. Thwarted expectations can lead to feelings of inadequacy or rejection, to accusations of elitism or solipsism. I think the Poetry/Communication issues are easier to discuss by reference to the broader concepts of Language/Meaning, but that can get heavy and distracting.

    Sometimes, when people have said how much they like a poem I know well, I've asked them about it only to find that they don't, to my mind, understand the piece. It tends to be by a famous person and can be easily (though misleadingly) paraphrased, and it probably mentions love or death.