Thursday, 30 October 2014

The Meaning of Meaning

A few years ago, the judge of one of the big poetry competitions was roundly lambasted in the literary press for a judge’s report that began “What I liked about the winning poem was its ambiguity.” Noooo, screamed the correspondents. A poem is an attempt to convey something profound to an audience. If the audience can’t grasp the meaning – if the poem is ambiguous, obscure, or open to diverse interpretation – then surely the poem has failed at the first hurdle?

I was reminded of this discussion recently. In his recently published “Top 10 Tips for Being a Successful Poet” (which are really tips for how to prepare the mind and heart so that you are in a state which is receptive to the possibility of poetry happening – a subtle but important distinction), Andrew Motion states that “people will interpret your poetry in different ways, but provided the interpretation that is brought to the poem isn’t plainly bonkers, I actually enjoy that.”

This statement elicited a strong response from my literary sparring partner Tim Ellis, who retorted: “I never write a poem unless I have something I want to say, and if people interpret my words differently I consider the poem a failure.” And that really set me thinking.

I wrestled with a similar problem earlier in my poetic career. At that time, a rather lovingly crafted descriptive poem of mine had just been Highly Commended in one of the bigger competitions. I was proud of the success. But when I read the judge’s report, I was perturbed to discover that the judge had inferred a subtext within the poem which I had never intended. The subtext he’d ‘found’ was about bereavement – not exactly a minor issue. In fact, owing to the subject matter of the poem, I was initially a little upset to realise that the judge had interpreted it this way.

What followed was a bit of a crisis of confidence about my integrity as a poet. After all, aren’t poets supposed to tell the truth, at least as they perceive it to be? If people were reading my poem as a poem about bereavement – if, indeed, it had won its competition place on the strength of an assumption that it was about bereavement – then wasn’t there something intrinsically dishonest about the poem? And wouldn’t there be something even more dishonest about me putting the poem forward in future poetry readings, knowing that at least some of the audience were likely to interpret it that way?

It took a very wise poetry tutor to explain to me that that didn’t mean the poem (or the poet) wasn’t truthful. The very fact that the poem was open to an interpretation other than the one I’d intended was a sign of the power of the poem to take on a life beyond the person who had written it. Those who subsequently read, or heard, the poem were free to draw out meanings from the poem which resonated with them. The poem was no longer constrained by the fairly narrow sphere of my own observations, thoughts and feelings; it could land in somebody else’s heart and have a whole new meaning for them, independently of me. And that, if I’m honest, was something a little bit awe-inspiring, and very humbling.

This is exactly the same reason I love modern art, and folk music. In both of these art forms, there’s seldom an obvious contemporary meaning to the artwork. Modern art and traditional songs and stories are at their most powerful when their meaning isn’t tied to the person who created them. Other people can come and interact with and, to an extent, reinterpret the artwork. Thus, fairy tales take on new meanings which resonate with the concerns of the contemporary society. The tales of King Arthur have been constantly rewritten for the changing times, from the age of high chivalry in Malory, through the vehement anti-war satire of TH White, to Monty Python’s surrealist whimsy. We are far more aware of the undercurrent of, say, sexual violence in Little Red Riding Hood or domestic abuse in Cinderella than were the audience of fifty years ago, or a hundred. And one reason why I love the Yorkshire Sculpture Park so much is that the Henry Moores and Barbara Hepworths there can be touched, climbed over, peeked through and hidden behind; their meaning is constantly reinterpreted by children of all ages finding new ways to interact with these magnificent sculptures, new games to play with them.

For me, a really good poem has a similar quality to those stories and sculptures. It can also be played with by the reader, or listener. They can see aspects of their own lives, or their landscape and history, in a new light by seeing them through the poem’s lens. So there doesn’t have to be one, absolute, inviolable meaning to a poem for it to be a success. Even an overtly contemporaneous political rant, if well written, can resonate long after the events which incited the poet to put pen to paper have become yesterday’s news. Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village was written in response to the effect of the Enclosure Acts on rural populations, but the workers of mischief in the poem seem disturbingly familiar in an age of austerity, benefit cuts and food banks.

There has to be some meaning though. There are poets who take ambiguity to an extreme, and produce poetry so obscure that no one can dig out any meaning from their words. Or, perhaps worse, only those with doctorates in literature can decipher them. Ambiguity as a poetic tool fails when its effect is to exclude the readers, instead of inviting them in.

Unfortunately, judging by the content of certain journals I could name, there are still one or two poetry editors who haven’t realised this...