Saturday, November 17, 2007

Poetry Lesson 2: Meaning to mean

All communication intends to exchange meaning. "I'd like a cheeseburger with fries and a Coke." That conveys meaning from a hungry customer to a waitress or fry cook. And if the communication between customer and cook was reduced, let's say, to the pushing of buttons with pictures of meal choices -- as in a vending machine -- we'd have communication that is almost perfectly mundane. By which I mean there is very little chance for interpretive meaning, only the exchange of explicit communicative chunks. "Almost perfect" because there's a person on the other end of the process taking the mechanical order and doing the cooking. If a customer were to come in and push the "large fry" button 75 or 200 or 809 times in a row in quick succession, the cook might step out from the kitchen and make sure that there wasn't a problem. Even in this simple example, there is room for interpretation at the edges.

And the edges are what poetry is all about.

If you want to make simple, declarative statements about feelings or beliefs... stick to prose. There's no harm. Most of what I write is prose, and a good essay, rant, story or post is a joy forever.  But if you're the type who is now thinking, "Yeah... I wonder how many times I'd need to mash the 'fries' button to get the cook to come out?" then you might be a poet.

Language is, of a necessity, symbolic. When I say, "It is cold," it doesn't make it cold. It might not even be cold, by any reasonable assessment. When I change the words to, "I am cold," it can mean a couple of things, eh? Clearly, it can mean, "There is less heat in my environment than I am comfortable with." But we also use the term "cold" to mean emotionally distant, unloving, uncaring, etc.

The fact that one word, phrase, description or entire piece of writing can mean multiple things is what makes good poetry so beautiful. As humans, we like to see/make connections. We like solving puzzles. We make connections even where none are intended; how often have you looked at a cloud and thought, "That looks like a [whatever]." Our brains are programmed to seek meaning on multiple levels.

How is this useful in poetry? Well, let's consider the "cold" thing again. If I simply say, "I am cold," without context, you can think either that I'd like to warm up, or that I'm emotionally distant. As soon as I provide some surroundings for this statement, though, you have more edges; more interpretive options:

I am cold
here in your bedroom.

Whoops! Hey... what?  OK. That's weird, isn't it? When "bedroom" is referenced in poetry (and much art) it is usually a place of warmth and connection. The poet is saying he's cold (either lacking heat or feeling distant) in a place where both of those things are odd. It makes the interpretative process different and more interesting; there are more ways to put the pieces together, to make sense of the edges where meanings can cross. Let's add another line:

I am cold
here in your bedroom.
Someone left the window open.

What's going on now? Well... "window open" implies that the "cold" is possibly (more likely?) one related to temperature. We get cold when windows are open. But let's check out that word, "Someone." Hmmm... Someone? Not "you" or "I." The two people we'd expect to be involved in a bedroom poem aren't to blame. Let's keep going.

I am cold
here in your bedroom.
Someone left the window open.
And the summer sun won't touch me
on the dry, dark, hard wood floor.

Now it's maybe getting contradictory and, possibly, a bit creepy. On the absolute surface level -- no poetry intended -- a reader could take this at face value and say, "OK. So a dude is sitting on the floor of his girlfriend's room, and he's out of the sun, so he's cold. Big deal."

Right. But it's not hard to see the edges in this one, is it? Why would the writer choose (and good poetry is all about word choices) to make the narrator cold in the summer? That's a contrast, and contrast immediately shows of the edges between possible interpretations and makes us look for patterns and meaning. There's even sun, which implies it's day and not night, and probably not "cold" in an absolute sense. That is, at least, a strong implication.

So what else might be going on here? Always make the assumption that a poet is choosing his/her words with great care. You'll do that when you write good poetry, so make the assumption. So... just like we asked questions last time about Shakespeare's sonnet, let's ask some questions:

  • Who left the window open?
  • Why is the narrator alone (apparently, at this point) in "your" bedroom?
  • Why is the poem addressed to "you" and not "her" or "him?"
  • Why is the narrator on the floor?
  • Why use the word "touch" related to what the sun can/can't do?
  • Why use the word "won't" for the sun's touch -- which implies intention on the part of the sun or avoidance on the part of the narrator -- rather than "can't?"
  • Why use the words "dry," and "dark" to describe the floor, other than that "dark" emphasizes the lack of sun?
  • Is it important that the floor is "hard wood?"

I'm intrigued. Are you intrigued? Whenever you read poetry, do so like a detective. Think about the words as if they are all clues to places where the poet has been and wants you to follow.

Most poets, myself included, *hate* explaining their work. The whole point is to let the reader pull out meaning and depth based on their interpretation. Explaining your own poetry is like starting a joke with the punchline or saying, "I'm going to tell you a neat, provocative mystery in which the main character's sister is the killer." Blech. But today, because we are doing lessons, there will be some explication of the aforementioned questions: 

  • Who left the window open? Can't be "me" (the narrator) or "you" (the object of the poem). Must be someone else. Not normally a comfortable implication in a poem. Probably a cause for stress or drama between "me" and "you."
  • Why is the narrator alone (apparently, at this point) in "your" bedroom? Maybe "you" left. Maybe "you" are still there, but are very quiet (also a disturbing possibility). Maybe "you" didn't expect me. Maybe "you" are out with whomever opened the window.
  • Why is the poem addressed to "you" and not "her" or "him?" Using the 2nd person implies familiarity. It also makes the reader feel more like an outsider, as the use of the 3rd person ("I am cold / here in her bedroom") would imply that the narrator expects the piece to be read/seen by the reader. In the 2nd person, there is a feeling of overhearing a conversation between two others, rather than reading something explicitly public. The "you" is the intended recpient, the object of the communication. This is subtle, sure... but important.
  • Why is the narrator on the floor? "Bedroom" implies, pretty strongly, one piece of furniture: a bed. The implication is that he's not using the one thing that makes a bedroom a bedroom. This is a strong clue that something is wrong or not comfortable. Why would the narrator avoid a bed in a bedroom? Especially if he is cold, and beds are used to keep warm.
  • Why use the word "touch" related to what the sun can/can't do? The sun doesn't really "touch" us. The light/heat do. But "touch" is a verb that implies personal, often emotional or intimate contact. So the lack of touch is another clue that there is some kind of personal, intimate lack here.
  • Why use the word "won't" for the sun's touch? The sun doesn't make choices in reality. The sun doesn't withhold its "touch" based on some kind of consciousness. So we're left to make one or two assumptions. Either the narrator is anthropomorphizing the sun and it's affect on him (cold) -- which is a sign of psychological distress -- or the narrator is avoiding the sun's touch on purpose. "It won't touch me," implies a choice made, rather than "It can't touch me," which implies an unavoidable situation.
  • Why use the words "dry," and "dark" to describe the floor? Sure, dark reinforces the lack of sun's touch. But we've already made the assumption that the narrator has chosen to be on the floor, and has possibly, deliberately picked his spot. If the floor is, itself, dry and dark, what is that in contrast to? Why even describe the floor? Well, because it's not the bed. The light, we assume, is touching the bed. And, while dryness is not necessarily associated with warmth, those romantic things that happen in beds are often moist; kissing, sweat, sex, etc.
  • Is it important that the floor is "hard wood?" Well... if you're looking for sexual references (and in a bedroom, that's a good bet), "hard" has implications, as does "wood."

So, above and beyond the surface, narrative meaning... we now have someone addressing someone in a more personal way (2nd person object), alone in a place that would normally have another there, on the floor instead of the logical bed, avoiding touch purposefully, in a dry/dark place, with (let's push this a bit, students) an errection.

Now... some of you are no doubt saying, "C'mon! That's reading a lot into those word choices." Yep. And an argument I have time and time again with new readers of poetry is on the subject of reading more into a piece than was intended by the poet. First of all, assume that the poet intends the maximum number/levels of interpretation. It's a good bet that he/she thought more about the writing of the piece than you are about the reading. Second, even if you do read something into the poem that wasn't intentional... that's ok. Part of the fun/joy or poetry is finding a picture of a dragon in a cloud that was painted to look like a bunny. I don't know a poet out there who will complain if you find some extra, bonus meaning in their piece.

I'll finish this poem next time, when we'll cover tension and release (or the lack thereof) as poetic devices, and why you should aim for "frisson" as a poet. Until then, your assignment is to take a very simple, declarative phrase and embelish it with at least three phrases that put its surface meaning into question, or provide alternate contexts. Don't worry about being "poetic." Just start with a phrase like:

The car is going fast.

And then think of three phrases that, in juxtaposition with the first, might cause a reader to ask some questions. Like:

  • It's making me sleepy
  • Although it's out of gas
  • My mom's a crazy driver
All of those phrases are somewhat unexpected when coupled with "the car is going fast." Go be unexpected on purpose.



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