On Poetry, Ambiguity

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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

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2 thoughts on “On Poetry, Ambiguity

  1. Ambiguity is not an American value. We resist the very notion that there is anything beyond our practical grasp. If you can make something to sell with it, what good is it? All the arts are essentially useless distractions to most Americans. This is why we offer no avenues to a living for artists but lavish wealth and attention on sports figures and on celebrities whose very existence will be forgotten this time next year. If poets were to make poetry of interest to most Americans it would have to have the fluorescent clarity of an “Open” sign in a liquor store window: simple, direct, and utterly functional—like a toilet or a Kleenex.

  2. I really see the attitude you describe in my students. Our senior curriculum has absolutely no poetry, and when I told my seniors we would be reading some poetry at the end of the year, they groaned and complained. They would prefer to read nonfiction essays about various social and political issues that poetry of any kind. Why? Because they don’t get it and can’t cope with being confused or not have “the answer”.

    The situation can’t be helped by President Obama’s push for so many more math and science jobs with little emphasis on arts (both liberal arts and fine arts). Education is now driven by data and testing. Americans seem to be trying to live mathematically and scientifically. I don’t think that works out too well, being Tin Men.

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