Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Mysteries and Puzzles

Entering the vortex of a very busy period. Tomorrow to London to interview Simon Broughton as material for the BBC Radio Three programme about Liszt and Gypsy music. The next day back to London for the big PBS reading. In London with son over weekend. The following week back again to London, interviewing the pianist Leslie Howard about Liszt, and two days later to Romania for the Days and Nights of Poetry Festival. On return a few normal days before the beginning of UEA's New Writing Worlds Conference, and from there straight out to Hungary to do more recordings with musicians, historians, gypsy musicians and Márta Sebestyén. From there directly to Ledbury, and from Ledbury immediately to Lumb Bank for a week's hard teaching. Later in the year back to Hungary and quite probably to China too, but more on that nearer the time.

The spot on Night Waves yesterday was interesting. In so far as there are exegetic problems and pleasures in poetry I am all for them. But if the problem is substituted for the poem or, rather, the solution of the problem is taken for the 'meaning' of the poem, then I am against them. John Fuller's book, Who Is Ozymandias?, is about the pleasures of annotation as a form of solution, meaning as a kind of background narrative. In mentioning Philip Larkin's 'High Windows' we seemed to agree that the key last image of high windows is more mystery than puzzle. Beyond that I would want to argue that the reading of poetry may be partly a solving of puzzles, but that it is far more a series of guesses about feeling and language, guesses for the poet too. So though we may imagine asking Larkin how he came by the image of high windows, we might remember his answer to the Paris Reviews interviewer on being asked how he came by the image of toads for work. 'Sheer genius,' he replied. He might have considered further and explored his own reading about toads, or direct experience of them. And that then would have been an interesting answer, but a possibly distracting one.

Looking for answers in terms of puzzle suggests correct or incorrect answers. There was an amusing moment in our conflicting readings of Wallace Stevens' 'The Plot Against the Giant'

First Girl
When this yokel comes maundering,
Whetting his hacker,
I shall run before him,
Diffusing the civilest odors
Out of geraniums and unsmelled flowers.
It will check him.

Second Girl
I shall run before him,
Arching cloths besprinkled with colors
As small as fish-eggs.
The threads
Will abash him.

Third Girl
Oh, la...le pauvre!
I shall run before him,
With a curious puffing.
He will bend his ear then.
I shall whisper
Heavenly labials in a world of gutturals.
It will undo him.

John moves through the stories of giants and sees the poem as a rather elitist argument by Stevens of the power of aesthetics over art. So the giant is a life-threatening yahoo. It's a poem about art and death.

It has never been that to me. To me the giant was always a figure of panting desire, a clumsy priapic figure, whose hacker is in fact undone by those 'Heavenly labials'. A filthy mind perhaps. The difference is that John is reading from the point of traditional literary scholarship (what was the author's intention?): I from a kind of hunch about the senses and the feeling of language as sensuousness and joke (what has the author found himself / herself doing?)

I don't imagine either of us would discount the other's reading. John said as much. The question might be whether the death reading allows for the sex reading and whether the sex reading allows for the death reading? I am sure of the latter and less sure of the former.

In other words my anxiety is that the problem solving approach might exclude more than is good for the poem and might privilege the appropriately educated. But listen for yourself.

1 comment:

litrefs said...

"But if the problem is substituted for the poem or, rather, the solution of the problem is taken for the 'meaning' of the poem, then I am against them" - the latter I agree with, but I think some poems are a bit like Magritte's "Ceci n'est pas un pipe" - using the media to succiently pose a problem.

Yes, puzzles can distract readers. Perhaps wisely, some readers don't want answers to "Who is the author?", "How does it work?", "What's it about?", etc. Some poets set traps for readers who do ask such questions. I think puzzles can sometimes be like those clues deliberately left by whodunit criminals - a decoy perhaps - a way to keep the reader's rational mind occupied, or a way to keep the reader engaged until they're too deep into the work to escape.

By the way, opposite your poem in Rialto 72 is an example of how Les Murray exploits obscurity - he wraps a supposedly obscure haiku of his in a supposedly explanatory poem.