There is an old anecdote, probably apocryphal, which describes how a female admirer once wrote to Browning asking him for the meaning of one of his darker poems, and received the following reply: "When that poem was written, two people knew what it meant – God and Robert Browning – and now God only knows what it means."
This got me thinking about some of my own poetry. I have written so much that there is no way in hell I can remember the particular events that prompted me to put pen to paper. That said, having never kept a diary, my collection of poetry is the nearest I've ever got. I just have to look at most of my poems and I can remember where my mind was at when I began it. Often I can recall the specific events that moved me to write. I can even tell you where I wrote a lot of them.
I say "began" because I used to be very slow at letting go of poems – we are talking months and months of taking the proverbial comma out and putting in back in a week later so the completion dates aren't always very helpful. By the time I used to get round to finishing every scrap of passion that had gone into that first draft would have vanished and I would have been reduced – bad choice of word there I think – to a cold-blooded editor.
I think it is good to distance yourself from your work. I saw an interview once – twice actually – with John Irving who recommended taking a break from one project to focus on another because when you come back you do so with fresh eyes. I may have blogged about this before, if not then I made a comment on someone's blog about it. It doesn't matter. Either way it's worth restating. When you return to a piece of work after a while you do look on it with fresh eyes and it's easier to do what's necessary to make the piece work.
But how do we know if a piece of writing has worked? It seems like an easy question but it isn't. In his essay, The Text Says What It Does Not Say, Pierre Macherey makes, what seems at first a radical suggestion, but, when you think about it, it's not such an unreasonable one. According to Macherey, the ideology of a literary work resides in its incompleteness, in its significant gaps and silences. In other words what you don't say can be as important as what you do. It's like wandering into Cyrano de Bergerac's living room and NOT looking at the nose; avoiding looking at something, or mentioning something, can actually draw just as much attention to it.
I think the whole issue of meaning is a fascinating one, one that, if I'm honest, is probably way above my head but that's never stopped me talking about things I don't really understand before.
Think about any poem you've written (this works best with poetry – you prosers will have to use your imaginations) and remember how you felt afterwards. It made total sense, it encapsulated precisely how you felt, it said exactly what you wanted it to say. But take a step back a minute and ask yourself how much of that poem never actually made it to the page, is still in your head. THAT is why the experience is a complete one, because you have all the facts, feelings, meanings at your fingertips; you are connected to that poem and in no position to be objective about it.
All of which brings me to a poem I wrote in May 2000. What can I tell you about the time I wrote this poem? Very little actually. The only interesting, though not necessarily significant, thing is that it had been fourteen months since my previous poem so something significant must have got the ol' gears going but, for the life of me I can't imagine what. I'd started a new job six months earlier and I'd settled in well. I was actually quite content in my life at the time – poetry would be the last thing I'd expect to be writing at a time like that – and then, out of the blue, this poem appears:
This is Not About What You Think
Every name and place has been changed,
what we did and why, all changed,
the dates and times, how we really felt,
the reasons we wouldn't stay away,
everything slightly altered, twisted,
to accuse the innocents
and excuse those guilty.
So A chases B like night flees the day
just as I came after you
or was it you taking the lead?
It's hard to remember now
but I'm sure we were never quite there together.
Stories are simple, even the difficult ones,
smoothed out and edited, tied up neatly by the end.
And that special ingredient, that missing metaphor?
A soupçon of some sort of sense to make the thing palatable
when nothing that real ever could be.
But why on earth should it? It's a pretty good question.
I just don't have any pretty good answers left
so this will have to do for now.
Now, I find this poem interesting for a few reasons. For one, it's in free verse. I've made no attempt at structuring the piece. When I write like this it generally means the subject is paramount and the word choice critical. It's also long, long for me. Normally I'd say what I had to say in half those words and get off the page before I messed the whole thing up. The poem is not without technique though, actually I've been a bit heavy-handed with the alliteration and repetition; I wonder why? The poem is deliberately contrary: normally names are changed to protect the innocent and should it not be "A chases B like night pursues the day" and how can difficult stories be said to be simple? I've worked at these obviously for a reason. I've gone out of my way to say something by not saying it but have I been too clever for my own good?
I have to confess that the poem has lost all meaning for me. I think of it as a bad poem, a poem that has gone off. I get an unpleasant taste when I read it. But does that mean it is meaningless?
Dave, at Pics and Poems, reminded me of Bashō, the seventeenth century master of the haiku, who is reported to have said: "Is there any good in saying everything?" An illustration Dave has seen given with the quotation, comes from the modern art of photography: "The poet makes the exposure, leaving the reader to develop it." I can follow the analogy. It's a good analogy. I know that wasn't my intent when I wrote the poem originally. I can write poems that make you think and feel, I can even write poetry that means something but my intent is normally transparent; at least I think it is.
Now, I'd like to contrast my poem with one I found on-line by Peter Ciccariello:
Poem of twelve nouns
This poem deliberately excludes certain elements – verbs, articles, conjunctions, adjectives. It functions more like a series of photographs trying to tell a story. What is missing is easily as important as what is there but it's got nothing to do with parts of speech. The reader has to use what's there as a starting point and structure what's presented to him in his head. The title really doesn't help. What I can tell you is that Ciccariello is an interdisciplinary artist, poet, and photographer, whose images are a synthesis of language and visual imagery. Knowing that helps me understand why he might produce a poem like this but it doesn't help me understand the poem which, I think everyone will agree, should stand on its own merits.
Meaning is clearly a dynamic thing. It is something we look for in everything. We try and impose order on things that have none, like stars and clouds, inkblots and words. Look at the Ciccariello poem. What did your brain do with those words? It tried to organise them. It needs them to make sense. I thought of what the missing bits might be and tried them for size. I struggle for a context that will fit all these words. Is there a definitive solution to the poem? No, because it's a poem and not an equation. At best it's only half an equation, the solution to what was going on in Ciccariello's head at the time, to which we need to work out the question. In this poem meaning is inferred, inferred by association. As soon as you see one word sitting beside another your brain wants to connect them in some way.
My poem meant something to me once. Now it means something else. The reason it meant something in the first place is because I was carrying the key around with me. Since I've lost it, it's nothing but a source of frustration, which is how I feel you must feel about the poem because that's how I feel about Ciccariello's poem. I'm frustrated because it does not live up to my expectations; whether it lives up to the poet's intentions is another thing completely.
So is my poem meaningless? God alone knows. I think it is. I think it's a bad poem. What do you think?