On the Times opinion page yesterday, Ernie Lepore examined the difficulty of “explaining” poetry. While I think some of what he says is quite astute and interesting, I’m going to ignore most of it, noting only that I agree (and it seems obvious) that what makes poetry distinct is it’s concern with text or language versus information, and focus on his note that poetry defies paraphrasing because each line means more (or something else) than what it apears to mean.
Lepore begins his article by saying that poets don’t like to be asked what their poems mean because “the question, simple as it may appear, is one that in fact has no satisfactory answer”. He then goes on to say, “T.S. Eliot, who, when asked to interpret the line ‘Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree in the cool of the day…’ from his poem ‘Ash Wednesday,’ responded, ‘It means “Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree in the cool of the day.”‘”
The fact that Eliot can’t (or won’t) re-explain in some other (the implication here being clearer” terms Lepore uses to illustrate that the line is essentially written, that it can’t be “translated” into something else. I’d argue that this line can’t be parsed simply because it contains a discreet and factual whole. The problem for poetry is that it seems people want, when they ask for an explanation of a line like this, not what the line means (because the line means precisely what the line says) but that they want the line to mean something different than that. They want the line to be some secret poetry-code, they want all of the possibilities that might be inferred into the line to be the line.
To put it another way, take this sentence from yesterday’s front page Times article on the debt crisis: “Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress began making their final arguments Monday on behalf of the debt ceiling deal to skeptical members in advance of votes in both chambers.”
Let’s say I was trying to parse that sentence under the terms poetry is held to, where it’s not actually paraphrasing, but expanding and illustrating all possible meanings and permutations of the sentence. I would need to explain the current workings of the debt ceiling deal. I would need to go over the whole recent history of the debt ceiling debate. I would have to talk about what the debt ceiling is, including its history, why it was first enacted, etc. I would have to talk about basic philosophies of the Republican and Democratic parties, and more fringe philosophies like starving the government to create smaller government, the tea party, the Norquist tax pledge, free market systems, etc. I would also have to talk about the recession, and how the debt might effect it, etc.
But where do I stop? Do I have to give competing economists’ theories about how to pull a country out of recession? Do I have to talk about military spending as a percentage of GDP? Do I have give a history of Medicare? Do I have to talk about all sorts of historical and economic implications that I don’t know anything about? All of those things could be essential to complete understanding of that line of text, but if we say we need to get all that information or we don’t understand the line, the whole house of cards comes toppling down, and we’re all left feeling stupid and alienated and not wanting to read the thing at all.
That, it sometimes feels to me, is the burden poetry is held to. We can’t discuss it on face value, and we can’t even burrow down just far enough to give a little context. In that sentence about the debt deal, all of those other factors would broaden my understanding of the sentence, but they aren’t wholly necessary to understand what that sentence is actually saying. The same is true for poetry. And, so I’d argue with Lepore that the problem isn’t that the lines of the poems themselves defy parsing, but that the starting point for the discussion is, for some reason, way too big. When Lepore reads Poe’s “The Raven” he says it “is partly about sound and its effects on thought” (even the way he says “partly” seems to say to me, the casual reader: there are depths to this poem you can never reach). I’d say that’s perfectly true. But, one step closer to the real, basic “meaning” of the poem, and an easier paraphrase: it’s a story about a sad guy and a scary-ass bird. That’s it. That can be enough.
I’m currently reading Joyce’s Ulysses, one of the more written about and dissected works in the English canon and what strikes me as I read isn’t all of the “important” points of the text, but that it’s baudy and funny, both in the story and in the writing. I sincerely doubt Joyce was planning for or even thought possible all of the thousands and thousands of theses that have been written about Ulysses when he wrote the book. He wrote it, the story and language that gave him pleasure and felt important to him, and some of its greater importance was inherent in the text, some of it was inherent in the time and place from which it was written, some of it was pure accident, and a whole hell of a lot of it has been created afterward.
And this is the weird problem that has seeped into poetry. Since it is one of the most commonly “dissected” mediums in academia, and younger students are often taught poetry as if it every word and line is o’erbrimmed with thousands of years of influence and importance, it has become ingrained in all of us to expect that there must be another meaning lurking behind the obvious one, a meaning that we’re just not getting. Forget if we enjoy the story of the sad man and the scary bird, we have to enjoy “The Raven” for its commentary on the use of language. And If there are leopards, they can’t just be leopards, they have to stand for the violence that harnesses a consciousness in a body. Or something.
That, I think, is a shame. If we can just stop insisting the leopard isn’t a leopard we’d all have a lot more fun.