Too much emphasis on trying to find out what a poem means

Dear Editor,

Your Sunday columnist Mr Ian McDonald has written, not for the first time, about his love of poetry and his lament over the apparent lack of interest in this art form at the present time. (‘Ian on Sunday’ Sunday Stabroek, Feb 22).

1 would urge those interested in poetry to read an article titled ‘How Does a Poem Mean’ by John Ciardi. It can be accessed online on Google.

Though the writer admitted that “passionate learning is full of very technical stuff,” his thesis is, that too much emphasis on trying to find out what a poem means, obstructs the reader’s appreciation and enjoyment of the poem.

Our own Guyanese singer Eddie Grant made a similar point when discussing his reaction when people ask him about the meaning of some of his songs including ‘Electric Avenue.’

The following are excerpts from the Ciardi’s article:

“W. H. Auden was once asked what advice he would give a young man who wished to become a poet. Auden replied that he would ask the young man why he wanted to write poetry. If the answer was ‘because I have something important to say,’ Auden would conclude that there was no hope for that young man as a poet. If on the other hand the answer was something like ‘because I like to hang around words and overhear them talking to one another,’ then that young man was at least interested in a fundamental part of the poetic process and there was hope for him.

“When one ‘message-hunts ’ a poem (i.e. goes through the poem with no interest except in its paraphraseable content) he is approaching the writing as did the young man with ‘something important to say… ’ The common question from which such an approach begins is ‘What Does the Poem Mean? ’ His mind closed on that point of view, the reader tends to ‘interpret’ the poem rather than to experience it, seeking only what he can make over from it into a prose statement (or Examination answer) and forgetting in the process that it was originally a poem…”

For What Does The Poem Mean? is too often a self-destroying approach to poetry. A more useful way of asking the question is How Does A Poem Mean? Why does it build itself into a form out of images, ideas, rhythms? How do these elements become the meaning? How are they inseparable from the meaning? As Yeats wrote:

O body swayed to music, O quickening glance.

How shall / tell the dancer from the dance?

What the poem is, is inseparable from its own performance of itself. The dance is in the dancer and the dancer is in the dance. Or put it another way: where is the ‘dance’ when no one is dancing? And what man is a ‘dancer’ except when he is dancing?

An excellent native example of the play impulse in poetry is the child clapping its hands in response to a Mother Goose rhyme. What does a child care for ‘meaning? ’ What on earth is the meaning of the following poem?

High diddle diddle

The cat and the fiddle

The cow jumped over the moon;

The little dog laughed

To see such craft

And the dish ran away with the spoon.

The writer in his essay states that “only a poem can illustrate how a poem works” and proceeds to do so with Robert Frost’s famous poem ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.’ He compares the process with juggling, as if the poet was juggling with words, tossing them in the air and catching them and tossing them again as a stunt.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are 1 think I know.

His house is in the village though;

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer

To stop without a farmhouse near

Between the woods and frozen lake

‘The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake

To ask if there is some mistake.

The only other sound s the sweep

Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But l have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before l sleep.

The writer deals at some length with the repetition in the famous last lines:

And miles to go before / sleep

And miles to go before I sleep.

“But why the repetition? The first time Frost writes “And miles to go before I sleep” there can be little doubt that he means, I have a long way to go before I get to bed tonight. The second time he says it, however, ‘miles to go’ and ‘sleep’ are suddenly transformed into symbols… hundreds of people have asked Mr Frost (the) question, (what is the something else these symbols stand for?), and Mr Frost has always turned the question away with a joke…

He wrote them because, for the fun of it, he had got himself into trouble…

“He simply found himself up against a difficulty he probably had not foreseen: in picking up the rhyme from the third line of stanza one and carrying it over into stanza two, he had created an endless chain-link form. Each stanza left a hook sticking out for the next stanza to catch. So by stanza four, feeling the poem rounding to its end, Frost had to do something about his third line rhyme. It must have been in some such quandary that the final repetition suggested itself – a suggestion born of the very difficulty of what the poet had set out to do.”

Dr Joyce Jonas has released CD’s of various persons reciting the twenty set poems for the CSEC syllabus from about 2009. I recognised the voices of Mr Vic Insanally (West Indies, USA) and Mr Russell Lancaster (A Stone’s Throw and Dulce et Decorum Est) on the 2014-2017 CD.

These and other presentations are outstanding. The recitation of Ol Higue is also a gem. I highly recommend the CD to your readers.

The GCE syllabus in former times catered for an oral test in French. I would urge the Caribbean Examinations Council to consider awarding credit to students for oral presentations at CSEC English B.

Ciardi ended his article with the following allegory:

“Is it too frivolous to have compared this process to the act of juggling? Consider the following parable based on a short story by Analole France, The Juggler of Notre Dame.

“The juggler wandered France from fair to fair and whenever he saw a chance to earn a few pennies he unrolled his rug, lay on his back, and juggled his paraphernalia with his hands and feet. It was all he knew how to do, he did it well, and he was happy in the doing.

“As he grew older, however, misfortunes crowded him. One winter’s day, ill and tired, he took refuge in a monastery and by the time he had recovered he decided to remain there. It was a pleasant monastery dedicated to the Virgin and each of the monks and brothers set himself a special task in her honour. One illuminated manuscripts to offer her, another decorated her altar, another raised flowers. Only the juggler had no productive art, only he produced nothing that could be set in place before her and stay tangibly in place. (This rendering takes a few liberties with the original for the sake of making a point.)

“Finally, in despair, the juggler took to stealing into the chapel when no one else was about. There he would unroll his rug and juggle before the Virgin’s statue. It was all he had to offer, the one thing he could do well.

“One day a passing brother discovered the juggler at work before the statue and summoned the other monks in horror to witness the profanation of the chapel. Soon all the window-sills were lined with the heads of outraged monks come to verify the horrible report. They were just about to rush in and put an end to the sacrilege, when before their eyes the Virgin descended smiling from her pedestal and wiped the sweat from the juggler’s brow. The offering was acceptable.”

Yours faithfully,

W Moore





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