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Sunday 9 March 2008

Ambiguity in Poetry

Good to be back, though in truth I am only partly back, courtesy of a long-defunct, now resurrected dial-up connection that will not do all I ask of it: specifically, it will not allow me to read or write comments. so your indulgence for a few more days, please - and my thanks to those who sent or left messages of support and/or commiseration.

In her Times2 column of 3/3/08 Frieda Hughes examined the poem Heart of Cold by Gregory Woods ("Quidnunc", Carcanet), a poem unknown to me until then, but one which I found both strange and strangely compelling. Forsaking her usual form of analyzing a poem's content in terms of opinions expressed, her interest on this occasion was on what is withheld, the ambiguity resulting from demands made on the reader to contribute. "Heart of Cold" describes a male figure, one which those whose voices are the poem's voice, find ravishing. The ambiguity begins in the question as to what form this figure takes: is it a painted figure or a sculpted or a living one. There are indications for and against each - and, I would hazard a guess that there are indications for and against any others you might propose. Here are the opening lines to the second of its three verses:

No part of him has not been fondled, worshipped, kissed or licked
By strangers. Every inch of him has been not only looked
At but assessed by touch and taste, concavities unlocked,
Convexities enfolded, ..............................

Which suggests to me that we are speaking here of a sculpted or a living form - or would be, were it not for the fact that the first verse ends:

We wouldn't have been nearly as excited
If anything unphysical had ever been inserted.

What on earth could that mean? Hughes obviously thinks it indicates that the subject is a painting or a photograph, perhaps in a magazine, and that the poet is suggesting that the introduction of, say, text, would have broken the spell. But if I read the poem in its entirety, I do not find that an easy interpretation to sustain. Furthermore, I cannot think that the word "inserted" would be the preferred word for that circumstance. But the truth is that we do not know for sure.

Looking back to the sentence which immediately precedes this rather odd statement, we read:

...................................Extreme detachment suited
Both him and us.

The nature of the relationship existing between this mysterious figure and the reader is characterized by distance. He may be an object of adoration; it may be that no part of him has escaped the kissing, fondling and licking of strangers; but the relationship between him and them is one of cool, remote physicality. As I see it then, the poet is saying that if something unphysical was ever to intrude into this relationship, say feelings of eroticism, of love or of some mental or spiritual imperative, then the excitement that his body held for them, the voices of the poem, would be over.

The poem set me thinking again about the whole question of ambiguity in poetry. What is it? Where does it come from, and why?

The first question is the most easily answered: it is the lack of a single, clear, incontrovertible meaning. We often speak as though ambiguity belongs only in poetry and literary writing, but, like the other constituents of poetry, rhyme, rhythm etc, it is part of everyday experience. WAY OUT PEDESTRIANS is a sign I saw recently. REFUSE TO BE PLACED IN THIS BIN is another well-quoted example.

As to where it comes from, there are numerous sources, metaphor and the way the poet manipulates the metaphors, for example; the juxtaposition or conflation of conflicting or contradictory meanings is another; then there is the ambiguity arising from puns, allusions, allegories, etc; sudden changes in the poet's perspective can mystify; tautology and contradictory or irrelevant images confuse, as might the use of words such as "let", meaning both to allow and to hinder. Any of these might be either accidental or intended by the poet.

"Why" is perhaps the most fundamental question. Why is it that something which in much prose writing (as in the two notices above) would be thought an error of either diction or reasoning, becomes not merely legitimate for the poet, but prized? Because poetry is such a compressed and information-rich language, with so many parts of speech banging up against one another unprotected by the redundant words of prose, it would be almost impossible to exclude ambiguity altogether. Fortunately, the poet is able to turn it to good account and use it: to increase the richness and the subtlety of the language still further; to hold conflicting thoughts in a kind of balance; to expand the literal meaning of what is being said; or to give layers or shades of meaning. There are others, but it might be more to the point to take an example. I have chosen an early poem of Seamus Heaney's: The Play Ways. It dates from the sixties. Heaney, a teacher for a short time, is writing from experience, and what he describes is a lesson that is very much in the spirit of the sixties: he plays the class a piece of music and then they write. Nothing comes between those two experiences, no guidance from the teacher, no examples, no questions, nothing. He is happy that they should forget him, forget that he is there. Heaney has some notes, but nothing as formal as a lesson plan. Part of the charm of this piece for me, I suppose, is that I was teaching then, and saw and took lessons such as this and was thrilled (at times) by the results. Impossible now, of course: the culture has changed. Nothing is worth teaching now unless the results can be measured - and how do you measure a child's response to a piece of music. Well, yes, you could count how many punctuation marks were in the "right" or "wrong" place, but that somehow misses the point, I do believe.

I find it an interesting example in that much of the ambiguity is inherent in the content rather than either the syntax or the choice of words. It could be no other way unless Heaney had been happy to conjecture about what was happening to his pupils. He doesn't; for the most part he describes what he sees and hears. He tells us, for example, that the pupils are unsure what to do, but also that something (we presume something wonderful) has happened to them such that for the moment he is surplus to their requirements. So he proceeds ambiguously, as he must, given that the whole exercise is ambiguous in terms of expected outcomes, etc. But before even that, the title is ambiguous: does the word Play have to do with learning by play or is it play as in music. Either or both, would be appropriate. And what about that last line? Does it apply to the children, to the notes in the symphony or to both?

The Play Way

Sunlight pillars through glass, probes each desk
For milk-tops, drinking straws and the old dry crusts.
The music strides to challenge it
Mixing memory and desire with chalk dust.

My lesson notes read: Teacher will play
Beethoven's Concerto Number Five
And class will express themselves freely
In writing. One said: `Can we jive?'

When I produced the record, but now
The big sounds has silenced them. Higher
And firmer, each authoritative note
Pumps the classroom up as tight as a tyre

Working its private spell behind eyes
That stare wide. They have forgotten me
For once. The pens are busy, the tongues mime
Their blundering embrace of the free

Word. A silence charged with sweetness
Breaks short on lost faces where I see
New looks. Then notes stretch taut as snares. They trip
To fall into themselves unknowingly.

Finally, and this is for those odd occasions when for some reason you feel unable to go with the flow, to live with Keats's uncertainties, doubts and mysteries; perhaps you have an essay to write (and ambiguity is big with essays) and need something you can sum up; whatever, for all such occasions here, as a possible way in, are a few simple questions to ask yourself before diving into a full analysis of what on earth it means.

  • Does the ambiguity matter? Does it add anything? Would the poem be impoverished if the ambiguity did not exist? Try to see the poem without it.

  • Could both (or all) the possibilities allowed by the ambiguity be valid? And would that enhance the poem?

  • Is there a reference to it? It is ambiguous when you first encounter it, but maybe there is something later in the poem that will refer back to it, or something earlier that upon rereading the poem will throw some light on the passage.

  • Does it result from a simple omission, accidental or intended? Words (which the reader is meant to supply) are sometimes omitted for the sake of rhythm or compression. Punctuation may be omitted. Any such may cause confusion as to meaning.

  • Is it simply a decluttering? The poet has stripped away all the inessentials to make, say, an image stand out more starkly, but in removing something from the context has opened up the possibility of new interpretations of the passage in question.


Jim Murdoch said...

There is ambiguity and there are levels of meaning. I equate ambiguity with vagueness, not stating your case clearly enough, whereas levels of meaning are a bonus. To my mind, and this is just my opinion, anyone should be able to pick up a poem and get the gist of it, a close reading may also be possible but not essential.

The Heaney poem does exactly that. It's obvious what's happening here, a bunch of kids are exposed to some classical music and it reaches them. And for a lot of people that will be enough. Others will relish the imagery.

Dave King said...

Guess we'll have to agree to differ on this one, Jim.
Guess that's what friends are for.

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