Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 18 December 2008

What does mean mean?

Is anything truly meaningless? I think that we're back to the whole 'tree falling in the woods' scenario. If there is no one there to give it meaning then it has none. Meaning is an attribution. It is not intrinsic to anything. In The Day After Tomorrow the books meant warmth, nothing more, and by extension, life. Let's consider the following:

To anyone who doesn't read Greek it's meaningless. Let's translate it:

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

To a Trinitarian this is proof positive that Jesus and God are part of a divine trinity. To an atheist it doesn't prove anything. Of course there are those who will argue that this is a mistranslation, it should read "…and the word was a god" thus disproving the trinity. Whoever would have thought that a single indefinite article would cause so much trouble and, if the damn Greeks were so clever, how come they never thought to use one? Eh? There are those too who think that it can mean anything they need it to.

Without getting tied up with linguistically trying to define meaning, because that will open up a whole can of wormy definitions, the dictionary provides two simple ones:

1. What is intended to be, or actually is, expressed or indicated.
2. The end, purpose or significance of something.

Question: What is the meaning of poetry? Answer: For the purpose of this post poetry has no meaning; it is a facilitator of meaning, a conduit, a means to an end. So, if we boil these down, we have 'intent' and 'sense'. In the process however there is always something lost in translation. No medium is perfect. We've moved on a long way from the cylinders people used to record on, through 78s, LPs, cassette tapes, CDs but even the best quality recording is a poor substitute for sitting in the front row of the audience listening to the band play Dixie. If anything we've moved a step backwards because in the good ol' days that's all there was, live performance.

We all know the story, The Emperor's New Clothes, so I won't bore you with it, and I assume that most of you, at least my readers-of-a-certain-age, will know what a secret decoder ring is.

'Decoder ring' poems are fine up to a point. My wife writes them all the time, usually about me and I never get them. Of course, when she tells me what the poem is about it's obvious but no one else would have a clue to the poem's 'true' meaning. That does not mean the poem is necessarily meaningless to them. They will impose their own meaning on it. Our kneejerk reaction to things is to look for meaning even where there is none. Is it the wrong meaning? Well, it might not be the 'perfect' solution to the problem (because a 'decoder ring' poem is a puzzle to be worked out) but that doesn't mean it's not a viable solution. A spanner is a tool designed for a specific purpose but how many of you out there other than me have used it in place of a hammer or have used it as the handle of a lever? It is not a perfect hammer or handle but it may well be adequate. In a 'decoder ring' poem we have what is actually expressed which may perfectly fit the author's intent but only when the right person(s) read the poem.

Now, an 'emperor's new clothes' poem is another thing entirely. It is where you are presented with an arrangement of words on a page and are told, "This is a poem – make of it what you will," whereupon you are left to your own devices. Now, you can look stupid and say, "I don't get this," or you can hold you hands up and go, "This is simply wonderful!" to cover your embarrassment. I think too many of us are unwilling to play the role of the wee boy who shouts out, "Hey, the emperor's got no clothes on," for fear of ridicule. We assume that the poem has a solution.

I sat down and drafted this post after reading a post by Dick Jones who quoted Simon Armitage, who I have to admit I don't know from Adam. That said, I do agree with what he had to say about poetry:

As far as I can tell, there are two kinds of poets: those who want to tell stories and sing songs, and those who want to work out the chemical equation for language and pass on their experiments as poetry.

I think the answer is all to do with percentages. No one, I don't care who they are, can write a poem where every reader will understand and feel exactly what the writer intended. There is always a trade-off. What is acceptable to one reader will not be to another but when the author is doing as little at 10% of the work and the reader 90% then I think we have to ask questions. In the case of some of the pieces on those sites, all I can say about the authors is that they've provided the words but, at the great Eric Morecambe would have said, "not necessarily in the right order."

Which brings me to the term 'experimental poetry' a one-size-fits-all expression which can be used to excuse the author no matter what, if I might quote Stephen Fry here, "arse dribble" is served up to us in the name of poetry. I have no problem with poets experimenting. I encourage it. I do it myself. I think it is essential. In the best scientific tradition that is how we learn; we have a crack at it and see what happens. One of my favourite poems of all time is an experiment, 'The Locust Tree in Flower', by William Carlos Williams:

The Locust Tree In Flower






I was eighteen, maybe nineteen, when I first read this poem and I'd read nothing like it in my life. It was the very first poem by Williams that I encountered and it was accompanied by a lengthy essay by the Scots poet, Tom Leonard, whom I have blogged about before. In his essay In Praise of Abstraction: Moving Beyond Concrete Imagery, Ravi Shankar (no, the other one), says this:

It presumes too much: that the author has distilled some essence of the locust tree that other language could not adequately convey; that the reader, through contemplating those thirteen words, is able to fill in the blanks and reproduce the kind of feeling that Williams had when he wrote the poem; that subjectivity can, in any real sense, be circumvented, even in a haiku-like verse form.

Williams is oft quoted as saying, "no ideas but in things," and I think this is a good example of that edict and yet I'm puzzled why he felt the need to condense this poem from its original form, which appears on the previous page in my collection of his poetry.

The Locust Tree In Flower
[First Version]

the leaves

of wrist-thick

and old
stiff broken

loosely strung—

come May
white blossom

to spill

their sweet

and quickly

It, of course, is interesting on its own merits – take, for example, in inclusion of the made-up-word 'ferncool' – and yet Williams felt the need to prune away at this until there is almost nothing left. It was months later before I read this earlier version by which time I had fully absorbed the revised poem and even had a crack at a couple in a similar style.

Does Williams's experiment work? It did for me and yet the poem sits alone in his canon. I wonder why he never felt the need to repeat the experiment. Because it failed? Because it succeeded? Who knows? What I hate is a rubber stamp being slapped on any experimental work that basically exempts the creator of the work from any criticism: "Ah, but you see, it's an experimental piece." Experiments fail more times than they succeed. Hockney, the artist, used to get rightly pissed when people raided his bins for paintings and drawings he'd thrown out. They used to see the stuff as genuine Hockney. Well, he couldn't really argue because he'd done the work. It was simply that he decided the pieces were inferior. So, he started putting dirty great crosses through the art and they still raided his bins for the stuff and sold it.

Here's an old poem of mine:


I know.
I know that!
I know that she is.
I know that she is there.
I know that she is there for me
and I am coming.

25 July 1989

I'll do what everyone else does and not tell you a damn thing about it. You can decide if it's an 'experimental', 'emperor's new clothes' or 'decoder ring' poem.

I've had a few e-mail exchanges recently on the subject of meaning. I think there is a tendency on our parts to over think things. Ani Smith pointed me to a blog, well more of a rant really, by a guy called Blake Butler where he…well, rants frankly, about the nature of meaning. He cites the example of a guy going into a store and meeting a woman: what does that mean? The fact is that it could mean a lot of things. The bottom line is that we don't have enough information to accurately determine or assign a meaning to it. So we extrapolate, we invent, we start to do the writer's job for him and make up our own story.

Is that so bad? Well, that brings us back to our percentages again. I would think most readers enjoy being a part of the process, they expect it and look forward to it; others prefer everything spelled out with Dickensian precision – he was getting paid by the word remember. I do expect a writer to tell me what I need to know. They don't have to be blatant about it. People who enjoy crime novels enjoy searching for clues whilst avoiding the MacGuffins and the red herrings. And, if all the i's aren't dotted and the t's aren't crossed at the end it isn't always the end of the world.

The main difference between prose and poetry in this regard is the ratio. With prose we are used to things being spelled out. With poetry we come to the piece expecting to be asked to do a bit more work. Everyone is different. Personally I like a poem that resonates after one has finished it. I want to get the gist of it then and there but I also appreciate it when there are bits for me to chew on afterwards, unanswered questions if you like. It's the same reason I like photographs. There's an antique shop in the west end I sometimes visit and they have a box of these "instant relatives" as Carrie likes to call them.

Another question Blake Butler asked was: "Why can't a bird made into a pillow just be a bird pillow?" It's a good question. Or as Freud might have put it: "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar," although there is no evidence that he actually said that. Metaphor and symbolism are at the core of poetic writing. People who don't like their meanings to spill over out the words their reading should probably steer clear of them. "Why can't you just say what you mean?" is another good question. Sometimes I do, sometimes however it's easier to write about one thing when you're really talking about something else. That's nothing unique to poetry. I had a girlfriend once who used to let me know she was menstruating by using the colourful euphemism: "The painter's arrived." We use picturesque language all the time. We very rarely call a spade a spade.

One last poem before I move on:

The By-Pass

There being no time
and having no place else
I hid what I had to say
in the words,
just out of sight –
unless you were looking.

28 August 1989

which brings us back to our original definitions. Remember there are two:

1. What is intended to be, or actually is, expressed or indicated.
2. The end, purpose or significance of something.

This poem is about communication. The narrator – okay it's me – needed to say something but he is afraid to state his case plainly so he says what he has to say in the subtext of a conversation, bypassing the top-level meaning. My meaning was there but only if you looked for it. It's something we Brits are experts at. The art of innuendo goes back years. In most cases the inference is a sexual one but it can be a romantic one too. For the record, this conversation-within-a-conversation took place on a by-pass. That's what gave me the idea. So there.

But what is the purpose of the poem? Ah, well, I gave it to the – okay it was woman – some time after but without any explanation as to what it was about. It was my way of saying, "Look, what I said to you in the car wasn't what I was actually saying." If she cottoned on she didn't let on. That's what it meant then. What it means now, to me, it reminds me of that time and with hindsight reminds me that I was right to be circumspect. Ah well. You can make it mean what you will.

One last thing, on the far edges of both poetry and prose is surrealism. It is a word that is overused and used incorrectly most of the time. It has superseded 'unreal' as the generic description for odd art and writing but I think that subject deserves a complete post to itself, not that I know a lot about it.


mand said...

The linguistic end of this essay is one of my favourite topics, the meaning of meaning.

As for a cigar just being a cigar, when i wrote Two trees it was about just trees. Readers pointed out to me that it was also about other stuff. I still think it is about that other stuff as well as the trees. Wonder what that says about artistic meaning.

As for emperor's new clothes, i thought i was clever when i - very young - wrote Water music:


(...No, don't say it, i know.)

Btw if you know anything at all about surrealism, it will be more than i do even though i studied some, so i need to learn and would love to hear your take on it. I've just found 'It is the dictation of thought, free from the exercise of reason, and every aesthetic or moral preoccupation' (Apollinaire). But there's more to it than that.

Jim Murdoch said...

What is says, Mand, is that the reader decides what any piece means. When you read your poem it was just two trees but others have read more into the work. They're not wrong because their meaning doesn't correspond with yours as if they've somehow failed. A poem is not a test to be passed or failed although I admit some feel like that.

As for surrealism, with and without a capital S, I've already written the post and it'll be up on Monday. And I think that might be me till the new year - I could do with a wee break.

Ani Smith said...

I am very confused, which is my normal state, but still.

On the one hand, you seem to say readers can impart their own meaning to anything (which I agree with). But on the other, you seem to imply that the writer is being lazy (?) by making the reader do most of the work.

You say it's a question of percentages, which I guess is fair. I suppose, what I take away from that is that some people want 60-40 and others are content with 80-20 maybe.

I still have no idea why you read my stuff, to be honest. I think it's true that I can be lazy and unfair to my readers. But I think of it in more existential terms. If I weren't around to corroborate the story, you could analyze until you are blue in the face and you still would be no closer to the 'true meaning'. I guess that's why I'm not an academic. I don't care enough to explain things. I just want to write and if someone stumbles across something that speaks to them, maybe makes them feel that they're not alone, then that's cool.

Thanks for making me think. An unusual event for me. ;)

Paul said...

Oh I will look forward to the post on surrealism, Jim. You're attention to detail will be perfectly apropos. There is no intrinsic meaning in anything, all meaning is entirely context dependant. There is a lovely confluence in posting about meaning and then surrealism. Surrealism places meaning in the context of the origin of symbols rather than their decoding and so on. There are some who suggest the meaning of poetry is in its ability to effect change whilst the meaning of prose is passive in the sense that is an act of recording or recreating. It's an infinite subject and eventually one wanders into fields of ontolgical speculation. Stephen Fry's book "The Ode Less Travelled" is the best book on the state of contemporary poetry I've read.

Susan Sonnen said...

I really like your poem The By-Pass. Precisely for the reason of which you spoke - that I can place my own interpretation on it. The last line, to me, is terribly clever. To me it implies, "If you were listening close enough and reading between the lines, you know what I really meant." Which is basically what you said it was meant to say (to you) already. Does this mean that I get extra credit?

Now I'm confused. But happy. I enjoyed this post.

Jim Murdoch said...

Why do I read your blog, Ani? That is a very good question. The simple answer is that you have a way with words. You provide intriguing stuff for me to think about. Now, I'm really not sure what our ratio is. It's certainly not 50:50 and by that I mean that you and I are not in perfect sync. It's what I like about Beckett. I have to adjust my way of thinking to get him. There is a lot in this life I don't understand. That doesn't stop me being fascinated by them. Also you write short stuff most of the time. And that's good. I like short stuff. This does not of course mean that reading you is always a satisfying experience. And I'm not putting you on a par with Beckett. So get that ego in check.

I've not read Fry's book, Paul, and I'm not sure I ever will. It's not that I don't like him. I'd just like to keep it that way. As for surrealism… Like most of my posts I probably ask more questions than I provide answers.

And, Susan, yes, that's exactly what I meant and I'll never know if she knew that's what I meant but I know what she meant even though she never said a word about it. Oh, and if I give you extra credit you've got to use them up by the end of the week or they go off.

Sorlil said...

For me the most important thing about a poem is the experience of the words themselves via sound and imagery. Not to say I'm unconcerned about meaning, it's just not the top priority though it's a close second. I'm all for symbols, metaphors, ambiguity but word puzzles calling itself poetry is not my thing.

Dave King said...

Who was it said: It doesn't mean anything; it has meaning?

I think I may have said before about the class of children who were very language-impoverished, but whose favourite T.V. programmes were high-dialogue, low action ones. I couldn't understand why this would be, until I heard them discussing the previous evening's viewing and realised that they were not talking about the episode I had watched, they had projected their own plots upon what they had seen, but the amazing aspect was the degree to which they all agreed!Your post reminded me of them once again.

Jim Murdoch said...

The question I have then, Sorlil, is: How do we know when our symbol or metaphor or ambiguous statement has worked? To take Williams' idea of a poem being a machine made out of words what are their functions? A simple word has a function – it is a container for meaning. They come in different shapes and sizes. Some words aren't capable of holding much. Others can hold such a wide variety of meaning. On its own a word may not mean much in the same way as a cog on its own isn't much use to man nor beast. The big, awkwardly-shaped ones, like neuro-fibromatosis, aren't capable of holding much more than the one meaning; it's the small ones, like love, that prove to be the most flexible.

And, Dave, I suppose the closest I can come to that is watching the TV with the sound off. Or better still watching it with a group of people and trying to figure out what's going on. I'm tempted to suggest that one individual would become the leader and the rest would provide support for his theories. I wonder if something similar happened with your kids.

Sorlil said...

I think a 'symbol or metaphor or ambiguous statement' has worked even if the reader is only able to access an immediate physical pleasure of the sound and feel of the words in themselves.

Jim Murdoch said...

I struggle with that I really do, Sorlil, because of how I perceive a word as "a unit of language, consisting of one or more spoken sounds or their written representation, that functions as a principal carrier of meaning" although I will accept that I could enjoy a poem in a foreign language purely on the basis of the sounds made. I like my choral music not to be in English, for example, because then I can appreciate the sound of the human voice stripped of intellectual meaning. If I'm not struggling to understand the libretto I can focus more fully on the music.

mand said...

'worked even if the reader is only able to access an immediate physical pleasure of the sound and feel'... I would say, IF the mood/atmosphere/feel (call it what you will) is right for the verbal meaning - 'right' being what the author intended (including the possibility of multiple intended meanings)! Hell, this is getting convoluted.

For me, understanding intellectually (as with a cryptic clue) is one part of enjoying a poem, and sensual pleasure of the sounds, rhythm etc is another, and for me to enjoy thoroughly both must happen.

Sorlil said...

Okay an example of what I mean from Jane Holland's poem 'Troika' which has the lines: "Outside is like the last dark, / familiar as the first hurt. / I'm used to its velvet lagoons".

On a word-by-word analytical basis I couldn't tell you exactly what this means. I can guess at the sense of it from the poem as a whole and have a rough idea of what it's about. But more than that, the actual conjunction of the words 'last dark', 'first hurt', 'velvet lagoons' becomes an experience in itself for me that triggers emotion beyond the conscious attention of the words themselves. The elongation of the words 'velvet lagoon' in my mouth with the automatic sensation of 'velvet' and the depth and darkness conjured up by the use of 'lagoon' makes just the reading of the words a pleasurable experience in amd of itself beyond the wider comprehension of them in the context of the poem.

Jim Murdoch said...

It's a good example, Sorlil. I think we both agree that meaning in both cumulative and personal. Each of the words in those three lines has its own meaning. As soon, however, as you bring two or more words together they will each modify the meaning of the words that surround it. When I read those lines the very first thing I looked for was meaning and it wasn't immediate but how I felt about the lines came afterwards like an overtone.

Reading the lines was a personal experience too. I brought my own understanding of 'first hurt' and of course it will be different from yours. That the words have been picked with care is a bonus – 'first hurt' is harsh-sounding – but again this, to my mind, is a bonus. It might give me some clue as to what the poet had in mind when writing it but I'll never know and really don't care that much because the piece is mine not to make of it what I can.

You can over think a poem and I suppose you can over feel one too. To my mind both 'last dark' and 'first hurt' are abstracts and I'm not to be expected to treat them as more; better that I don't in fact. At the end of the day I will decide what it means. I have no fear of the dark, can't for the life of me remember my first hurt, don't much like the feeling of velvet and probably wouldn't go near a lagoon for fear of tropical beasties.

But, of course, when you read the entire poem suddenly we have a context and I don't feel as free to impose my own meanings on those three lines. You know I really don't care at the end of the day. We're all different. And that is as it should be. But I was delighted to get your feedback. It made me think … and, yes, okay, I felt a bit too. I mean that.

Just as you say, Mand, there is a lot to enjoy in a good poem and when the right poem and the right reader come together that is something else. I'm quite sure this isn't the poem for me but I suspect that it's unfair to read the poem in isolation too. It looks as if it's part of a longer sequence and that will affect its meaning too; perhaps in the other poems we get to learn the identity of the three parties in the poem.

Sorlil said...

Well done you for finding the entire poem, I didn't even know it was available online! said...

Oh that makes me wonder why? About Stephen Fry? I just thought, Jim, that perhaps the only really useful definition of 'mean' is the one which moeans 'average', the mean result?

Dave King said...

Don't think the kids would have watched it together, they all came from fairly far flung homes and were bussed in to school. I just happened on the occasion in question to overhear two or three small groups in the playground. None of them seemed to be discussing the programme I had watched, though they did all seem to have watched the same programme.

I think your watching with the sound off is a good approximation. For a few years now I have had some difficulty with hearing - deaf in one ear, good hearing in the other, so all sounds come from the same direction; tinnitus - and it sometimes happens that there is one character I cannot hear well. If it is a play or film I want to see, I turn the sound up (I'm bright, you see!), otherwise I don't bother. The results can be interesting!

McGuire said...

Have you ever heard or read Derrida? He was a philosopher dedicated to the pursuit of meaning and the limitations of language and meaning; one thing was said of him:

'He writes so obscurely you can't tell what he's saying, that's the obscurantism part, and then when you criticize him, he can always say, "You didn't understand me; you're an idiot." That's the terrorism part.'

This essay you write seems very much 'up his street'. He was interested in the division between the spoken word and the written word.

'Has it ever been doubted that writing was the clothing of speech?'

'From the moment that there is meaning there are nothing but signs. We think only in signs. '

He is extremely heavy going and I only quote little bits hear to give you a tiny glimpse.

Meaning is obvious but it is also a strange momentary, fragmentary thing. A 'STOP' sign means stop even if you still happen to have a car crash beside it.

I await your surrealist essay eagerly. I get the feeling you might be 'against' it in some way, I'll be there to blow its trumpet. Have you heard much ab out the dada movement during and after WW1?

I'll be reading.

Jim Murdoch said...

I had a quick flick through Fry's book, Paul, and I've heard him speak in interview about it. I found firstly, that he takes a very broad brush and, secondly his tastes in poetry are a bit old-fashioned. I think experimentation in poetry is essential. I just don't like a certain attitude that assumes that these experiments are automatically successful and places all the blame on the reader when they don't work. I'm not saying that he wouldn't be entertaining but I think I'd end up being more annoyed by his superior attitude than I'm usually amused by it.

And, Dave, I assumed that these kids watched separately but I was suggesting that one kid took the lead in describing what went one and the rest of the group adjusted what they thought they'd seen to accommodate his or her perspective. It's probably not the case but it crossed my mind so I thought I'd suggest it as a possibility.

Jim Murdoch said...

I've not read Derrida, McGuire, and nothing you've said would do anything to encourage me to read him. I'm very much a layman but I enjoy chewing the cud with people. As a writer language completely fascinates me. Because every human on the planet uses it it would be madness to suggest there was an answer and I'm not seriously looking for one. I just like to throw ideas out there and see what other people think. Sorlil in particular took up the gauntlet here and we had a nice wee interchange but I doubt either of us has changed their views but it's good to have to defend your position to reaffirm why you think or feel a certain way.

Before I wrote my article on surrealism I knew nothing about the literary side of it. So I approached the subject as an ignorant man with nothing but questions which I've tried to find answers for. As for me being against it and you needing to come to its defence, no, but you may be able to help me appreciate it a bit more. I do think it’s a word that doesn't mean what it used to, hence the small s these days but the post will be up tomorrow so let's not get ahead of ourselves.

mand said...

'The rest of the group adjusted what they thought they'd seen...' Scary, and happens so much in so many contexts. Scary cos it's insidious, and cos of the damage it can do when the perception is not of a tv drama but of a crime witnessed, or a personality encountered. I once watched a new colleague ostracised by a whole team unknowingly following one person's assumptions; and when the victim is, say, a politician the consequences can be even more huge.

Then we turn inwards and realise that we're all doing the same, some more than others, some with less self-awareness - but none of us avoids it entirely, imo. I strive to, but the only defence i see is humility.

Jena Isle said...

Poems are sometimes subjective, what maybe a poem to one person may not be for another.

Merry Christmas and a Happy new year to you and your family Jim.

Paul said...

He does take a very conservative approach, you're right. I agree that experimentation is essential in poetry but just as Picasso was a brilliant draftsman before he was a Cubist, I think contemporary poetry could do with a bit more emphasis on traditional skills and less on the idea that any words arranged on a page are poetry. It is the most unpopular position in bloggoland because it implies that the internet has been responsible for a severe devaluing of skilled poetry by experienced and careful poets amidst an avalanche of words masquerading as 'modernism' (which might make this comment relevant to a discussion on the meaning of 'meaning').
It is this kind of belief that gets both Stephen Fry and I accused of having 'a superior attitude', perhaps.

Sandra said...

I enjoyed your post and all the comments. I will come back for your next post.

Jim Murdoch said...

I think you'll have to place me firmly in the middle here, Paul, because I think to go back to the very traditional forms of poetry would be a backwards step however I think abandoning all technique is going too far in the wrong direction. I believe that either approach would damage poetry in the long run. Fry – and you and I – are all entitled to our opinions. I'm not as quick to dismiss as he seems to be (and I'm not just referring to his opinions on poetry here) but I do find that many of the experimenters don't help themselves because they are either unwilling to explain what their aims are or incapable of doing so; the former suggests they have a superior attitude and the latter implies they don't know what they're doing. I make no bones about this, I am keen to learn and perhaps I'll learn something that I can adopt or adapt in my own work. That would be a bonus.

Jena, the whole problem here is the fact that everything to do with poetry is subjective. People have a very hard time not letting their personal feelings cloud their judgement.

And, Sandra, glad you enjoyed the post. Today's is now up and running.

Rachel Fox said...

I tried to read the Fry book on poetry...was doing the exercises and everything...but I just sloped away from it in the end and it's somewhere in the house unloved and unfinished. He's a clever bloke with a funny turn of phrase but I think there are people with more interesting things to say about poetry (though I'm sure the book has delighted and interested many other readers). He's not the first to say 'go back and learn the basics' but he is the most famous. It's true and it isn't at the same time. Poetry is bigger than Fry can is waltzing and breakdancing (and you can breakdance withouth waltzing lessons).

Interesting to read the Jim/Sorlil interchange (analytical in the red corner/sensual in the blue!). A friendly heated debate with a 'meaning is one thing but it's not everything' result! Sorlil is good for all us meaning-heavy types...

Jim Murdoch said...

The thing about both waltzing and break dancing, Rachel, is that there is technique to each of them. For God's sake, there's technique to the 'Dying Fly' a dance that, according to the Wikipedia entry under TISWAS, "at one point soared high in the RoSPA list of common causes of household injury". And technique always benefits from practice, lots of practice.

Art Durkee said...

I think if you MUST find a meaning, and if you think the poet must be able to articulate one, then you're unfairly forcing the poet to explain herself or himself. This is equivalent to forcing painters or composers to explain themselves. Who cares? The "test" of whether or not an experiment passed or failed is not whether or not the reader got a meaning out of it, but whether or not the poet and the reader both had some kind of experience created (re-created) in themselves.

I don't go out of my way to tell people what my poems "mean," frankly, if they do mean anything, because I have found that when the poet tells the audience what the poet thinks the poem means, that freezes the meaning for all time. It has a dictatorial effect upon all future readings of the poem. It forces the poem to be less than it can be. I enjoy reading what other readers think of one of my poems, because sometimes they find meanings in my poems that I didn't know was there. I am willing to allow the unconscious placement of something into the poem that I didn't know about, to be discovered later; and not always discovered by me.

Having been to the Dali Museum in Florida this past year, I can tell you that the placards that assigned meanings to the paintings in the museum were absolutely the worst part of the experience. For one thing, Dali was a liar, and he didn't know what his paintings meant, although he did know they mean something, and so he would make up new answers each time he was asked, and some idiot curator would lock onto an interpretation(s) and present it as "puzzle solved!" to the viewer. I have to tell you, if you ever go to that Museum, the best way to enjoy it is to look at the paintings but don't read the little placards. Experiencing an entire building of Dali's paintings is a powerful and wonderful experience, and you come out the front door afterwards looking at the world in a different way than you did before. But don't read the little placards. They keep it all nice and cozy and explained.

And if we allow that for painting, why can't we allow it for poetry?

One answer is that words are the tools we use for bringing meaning to our lives, and we find that very very hard to let go of.

If you look for meaning within each poem as though it were a puzzle to be decoded, that promotes two things: 1. poets writing puzzle-poems, which is a horrific outcome, because this is a kind of poetry no one ever wants to RE-read, and re-reading is the essence of enduring pleasure in literature; 2. the idea that all poetry is like this, which influences more poets to think that poetry is *supposed* to be like this. This is where critical conservatives such as Fry get it all wrong.

I prefer my poetry to retain a little wildness, and not be so domestic as some of you seem to prefer. I prefer a poetry that passes through me without necessarily being "controlled" by me. And I write this way. I enjoy "not knowing what I'm doing," because the experiment itself is how I too am surprised.

I stand with Jim in the middle ground, most of the time, about experimentation. But I let go of meaning more than you do, I think. I tend to agree with a lot of what Sorill says, in this discussion.

To me a poetic "experiment" opens new territory—for the poet as well as the reader. I don't agree that the poet must be in charge of the poem all the time: that's an illusion of experimentation. (It's still the personality being in charge of the artwork, so nothing is really let go of. What the personality-ego thinks is letting go is never really letting go, just a pale shadow of letting go, because the little self still clings to control on some level.) If the poet always knows what they're doing, they can't be surprised or discover something new—new TO THEM. Experiments are not always great poems, I agree with that; but some are. An experiment is not always something designed to test a known hypothesis; especially in the arts rather than in science, experimentation equals exploration of unknown territory. Let's see what happens if we try THIS.

A successful experiment in one of my own poems, and there have been several, is when something gets over to the reader, AND I discover something new, myself. I'm not writing just to preach or to "express myself," yuck, I'm writing to discover. Writing to discover is why I bother; if I only wrote what I already know that I knew, how boring that would be.

I get the sense that the critical conservatives such as Fry would like us all to write more of what we already know, dress it up cleverly, and present that as Poetry. (BTW, I adore Fry's work a lot of the time; I think his poetry book is an aberration, I can't explain it any other way.) There is already all too much cleverness in poetry nowadays; far too much poetry is all head and no heart, already.

Rachel Fox said...

I didn't say breakdancers didn't need to practise...I just said they didn't need to know how to do every other dance! They might want to try, they might have a go, they might benefit from other disciplines...all these might be true...but at the same time they might still do a great dance (or write a great poem) from nowhere, in their own way, in their own style. It happens. And Stephen Fry playing the tutting school teacher about it doesn't make it any less possible. In my opinion!

Jim Murdoch said...

Rachel, miracles do happen so I'll concede that someone could on their very first go could write a cracking poem from nowhere. My first poem was actually not bad – it was the following 400 that were mostly crap. I do believe that even people who are born with natural talent still need to work at it. The pianist Lang Lang is being hailed as one of the greatest pianists of all time and sure he was performing in public before his feet could reach the pedals but he has basically worked his socks off since then to get to where he is and he still practices for hours every day. The same goes for people like Picasso and Mozart. Picasso's dad was an artist and Mozart's was a composer. One has to wonder what would have happened if Mozart's dad was the painter and Picasso's was a composer. These men both had natural talent, yes, but they benefitted from years of tutelage. The simple fact is they learned far quicker than the rest of us would.

And, Art, as for asking posts to explain themselves, perhaps if we replace the word 'meaning' with 'intent' then it might help people. I don't like not understanding a lot of the poetry I read. And I get downright annoyed that the people who write these poems keep what their doing or trying to do to themselves. My dad wasn't a poet. He wasn't a composer either. He listened to the tunes I wrote and the poems I wrote and tried to get them but he couldn't. He taught me plenty of stuff but not how to write poetry. I simply want to be a better writer than I am. I am quite happy to share what I've learned with others and I get rankled that others don't feel able to do the same.

As for experiments, how does one know if they've worked or not? You write a poem and I say I don't get it. Who has failed? If you're writing a poem for your own benefit then before you give it me to read you should tell me, "Oh, I didn't write this for general consumption so take from it what you can," and I'd be fine with that. Half of Ani Smith's stuff I don't get but there is something in the other half that intrigues the hell out of me. But after exchanging a couple of e-mails I know how to approach her work and I accept it on the terms that it is offered.

mand said...

Jim, your first point is that both talent and craft are involved - isn't it?

And the rest reminds me of 'modern' art. I struggle to get anything from a blob of one colour on a background of another colour, even less in some cases than i get from seeing shapes in cloud formations. But some people do get those works. Same with certain kinds of music. Even if i eventually conclude it's not my thing, i like to understand what those people get from those works, so i'm not just rejecting works in the same way as my currently-bolshie son rejects classical music, ie without giving it a chance.

Of course i do have to be selective cos i only have a certain number of years to go about this process, but that's a different way of rejecting.

Merry X, all, btw.

mand said...

Oh, another point. My haiku- and renku-writing (et al)friend Kris Kondo, who can be said to know what she's talking about, has struggled to get across to me what haiku is. She's said it isn't about the 17-syllable rule, and various other things i've come across, but each time i tried writing one she politely avoided answering when i asked if i actually had. Then last time i showed her an attempt of mine, she responded that it was a haiku. At last! So i asked why this one was. And she said if i thought it was a haiku, then it was.

Aargh. And as i say, if i don't understand her, it's not that she's bluffing or anything.

It's that old problem, if i read a novel in English and don't understand a word, i blame the writer, but if i read a book in French and can't make head nor tail of it, i blame my French. Isn't some of it about confidence?

This one could go on and on... but i'm enjoying. 80)

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, Mand, I do believe that great poetry requires a good mix of both talent and craft. And I do struggle with a lot of what passes for art today mainly because I feel the need to have it explained to me and then when it has been I'm still none the wiser. So I tend not to view art from an intellectual point of view. I either like it or I don't and I don't fret too much either way. As for classical music, I have a much broader appreciation there and can appreciate some quite dissonant or monotonous music but again I don't feel the need to read all the liner notes beforehand.

I do like you last paragraph about time running out. Yes, I feel it too and I'm not as willing to commit time to anything I'm getting little or nothing out of.

mand said...

Hey, Jim, that's the first time i've felt i both know what you mean and feel broadly the same way! Woohoo! ;0)

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