Thanks to the Image Journal‘s Twitter feed, I came across this blog entry by Scott Cairns about ambiguity. I learned several years ago that a successful poem remains open, allowing the reader to be a part of the poem instead of the recipient of a lecture. So Cairns’ definitions of ambiguity and good poetry aren’t surprising, but they are pointed and well said. Some quotes from the blog:
The productive ambiguity of good poems obliges the reader actually to participate with the text, that she collaborate as a co-maker of meaning.
Ambiguity in any substantial literary text, then, indicates that the significance of the telling doesn’t end with a single reading, and delivers a compelling nudge to the reader that she assist in the telling and the re-telling, the continuing labor of meaning-making.
Confessing our uncertainties . . . bring[s] us face to face with the limit where human understanding fails—as it inevitably must do. Apprehending that limit serves to make a healthy dent in our pride and sense of self-sufficiency.
We do not—will not ever—comprehend the Truth; rather, the Truth, presumably, comprehends us.
There are several great reminders in these quotes. First, a poem’s meanings depend on both writer and reader. Poetry is meant to be shared, discussed, misunderstood or understood, but always contemplated. Not by the educated or uneducated, or the high or the low, but by the reader existing as a contemplative, thoughtful being. Owen Barfield wrties in Poetic Diction that the use of language between people and poetry generates new meaning and creates new metaphors. How fascinating that sharing poetry amongst ourselves is an act of creating, an act of meaning. Second, a poem forces us to be second, to be humble. There’s no better way to make a someone feel intellectually inadequate then to have them read a T.S. Eliot poem. We get frustrated when we don’t get “the answer”, as if life (like poetry) provides “the answer” to every experience. A good artist knows that he is not bigger than the art. The reader of the poem must face the same humility or embarrassment. Finally, poetry forces us to realize that there is a Truth beyond us, bigger than us. There is mystery in that understanding (Or should I say ambiguity in that un-understanding?). But we lose sight of that and become Prometheus, running naked waving our fires over our heads shouting, “I have own the truth!”, oblivious to the burning stench of our own hair. This coming from the bald guy.
I can’t help but to wonder if the inherent presence of ambiguity is contributing to the social disinterest of poetry.