Thursday, 18 November 2010
A Secret and Subversive Pleasure 4
There are two ways of approaching poetry I consider counterproductive, as did Bell I imagine (though he does not address these points in the poems):
1. The use of the poem simply as an illustration of a point about something else.
Wilfred Owen’s poems may be comments about the First World War, but their value does not lie in entirely in their usefulness as source material. They are not statements: they are complex constructed, improvised language machines that do a lot more than show pity or record scenes of distress. They are not to be turned on and off. They want to remain in what Auden called the ‘auditory imagination’ and they often do. Poems are multi-dimensional because they employ the full resources of language.
2. Concentrating too much on what this or that line of a poem – or the whole poem – means.
The whole point is that, like language itself, the poem means several things at once, and intends to. The poet himself or herself does not own the whole meaning. The poet doesn’t own the poem because the poet doesn’t own language. The various meanings can be discussed of course, and discussed with great pleasure, but there isn’t a universally valid paraphrase to be squeezed out of them. You don’t solve a poem. In a society accustomed to functional prose there is considerable pressure on people to find the simpler meaning inside the poem: to discover what the poem ‘actually means’. It’s no good that way. A single meaning is the opposite of a poem.
The complexity is nothing to be afraid of: it is an intense form of pleasure. Complex meanings are not difficulties, as such. Imagine overhearing a conversation about yourself through a partly opened door. Suddenly all becomes ambiguous and uncertain but intriguing. You want to stay and listen. Poetry is overheard like that. You hear over and under it. As you do, the potential meanings open up and seem endless. Overhearing is a secret and subversive form of pleasure, you might say: secret because it doesn’t entirely reveal itself, subversive because it undermines the sense of certainty. Once that is understood we can talk about meaning, but not before.
The tendency to treat poems as though they were problems is a problem. Meaning in poems is cumulative. You take what you can, when you can, but you can come back for more. It’s not that poetry doesn’t make sense: it is that it makes several kinds of sense at once. Like music. Once you get students to understand this much they can often do the rest. Understanding a poem is not a dreadful responsibility. It is overhearing language at play in its own maze. That multi-dimensionality is what authorities and institutions don’t much like. It is a little godlike. No wonder the authorities had it in for Prometheus.