Meaning in Writing
I think when we talk about literal meaning, we often privilege a particular type of seeing and a particular type of significance. Often that literal meaning is produced by exploiting paradoxes and ambiguities (I’m thinking here of Empson). This literal meaning is then usually developed through a varied series of rising and falling motions within a poem, that complicate the meaning, resulting in an epiphany or resistance to that epiphany (the speaker shuts down the discussion to hover on a particular lack or emptiness, I’m thinking here of perhaps Robert Hass’s “Psalm and Lament” which I find to be one of the finest poems I’ve ever read). I’m not so foolish as to oversimplify that this literal meaning is something one could summarize into some gem of wisdom—a sentence, a paragraph perhaps. But I will say that this type of literal meaning can be often be summed down to a feeling or contradiction which the author is struggling with or basking in or overwhelmed by. The poem becomes a sort of invitation for the reader to experience this feeling by tracing the breadcrumbs of narrative and rhetoric through to their logical conclusion.
I don’t disavow the idea that poems require meaning. I sometimes refer to this as “emotional crux”—a moment where forces in the poem converge to offer some sort of emotional invitation or disclosure or opposition or explosion that the poet can’t hold on to. However, I use this term rather than meaning because I think the traditional idea of meaning carries a sort of bias toward a type of poem that is overly normative in the interest of perceived access. Someone once suggested the idea of considering what poems would be on dead men’s lips. I won’t be reciting Ashbery’s “How Much Longer Must I Inhabit the Divine Sepulcher” or Dean Young’s “Hangover” on my deathbed, I concede that, but I also probably won’t be eating caviar. But that doesn’t mean caviar isn’t amazing (or so I’m told). We need poems that keep us alive, not just poems that keep us from death. I think meaning, the type of meaning that we’re talking about, slants too deeply toward the reader, at the expense of the reader. I think we just as desperately need poems that explode, reconfigure, and overwrite existing language to “make it new.” And I’m not convinced that any poem can “do it all.” Just because a poem provides a particular type of access doesn’t indicate to me that its type of meaning is superior, in the same way that Michael Jackson is not superior to Mozart or John Cage because “Thriller” doesn’t require deep diagnosis or multiple listens to grasp.
But I’m not a solipsist. I still shed a tear for “Listening to the Koln Concert” by Robert Bly. That poem breaks my heart. But I don’t know that I want to write that poem today. I think there’s a type of pleasure that comes from continuity and correlation with an agreed type of reality, and the writer has as much responsibility to that as he or she has to shock, appall, and enthrall the reader. I think every writer makes a choice about privileging and balancing types of pleasure and significance. Whether that arises from tonal complexity, syntactical ingenuity, conformity to a traditional forms of meaning, or beauty is largely the game we are all playing. I will never get the same kind of pleasure I get out of W.B. Yeats as I get out of Andre Breton, and I’m fine with that. I don’t always want tea for breakfast. Sometimes I want lobster or piety or megalomania.
In my poems, I’m interested in the internal coherence that comes from conformity to a particular type of meaning, but I’m not driven by it. I’m interested in balancing that meaning with the pleasure that comes from absurdity, irony, dissonance, consonance, dislocation, and embodiment. I think that one of the great weaknesses of avant garde and surrealist writers is that they failed to defend their claim to an egalitarian type of pleasure and beauty. I’m not so sold that because the Mona Lisa displays absolute mastery of a particular type of portraiture in line with centuries of tradition it’s superior to a Dali painting which displays absolute mastery of another type of portraiture which the painter has completely reconfigured and reimagined. I just don’t know that the idea of any universal criteria can be applied to all poems to their benefit. I think we might need to swap out tool belts now and then.
Fundamentally, I think it’s illogical and untrue to say that one type of poetry is more or less of a word puzzle than another just because all the pieces fit together in the end or they don’t. In essence, poets are always playing some form of game, the questions is just what the rules are and how much fun the game is. I’m not eager to play a game without rules, but I’m also not eager to play every game the same way. I think describing and understanding one’s own parameters (and often breaking them) is an essential part of the life of a writer.