In an earlier post, I wrote that both writer and reader should focus more on how a poem comes to be.
We seem to spend a disproportionate amount of time trying to understand what a poem means as opposed to understanding what a poem does.
The poet Archibald MacLeish wrote, “A poem should not mean/but be”(Ars Poetica)
And then, of course, there is John Ciardi’s famous work, How Does A Poem Mean.
A product of the malleability of the brain – the liveliness, plasticity and suppleness of language easily carries the primary weight of what a poem does.
It’s clear there’s more access to a poem’s meaning through what it does, the intellectually objective experience of the poem as seen through its structure, diction, metaphors, rhythms, etc
That desire for meaning arises out of a craving to see an underlying connectivity and order in things.
But meaning in poetry, as in life, is riddled with complexities, contradictions, inconsistencies and the inexplicable.
An emphasis on meaning only creates a wider emotional/intellectual distance between the poem and the experience of writing/reading.
Affording more of a prominence to what a poem does provides the writer/reader with a closer approximation of what the poem is looking to realize and communicate.
A focus on meaning takes the writer/reader away from the poem.
A focus on doing binds the writer/reader closer to the poem’s performance of itself.
The two are not mutually exclusive, but rather co-dependent. As Ciardi said, “The dance is the dancer and the dancer is the dance.”
Articulating a poem’s meaning will remain forever just out of reach – defying a critical analysis that cannot quite rephrase/recast what the words of the poem have already expressed.
What a poem does is self-organize from a series on constituent elements and influences.
Self-organization in this context can be understood as a harmonizing action among heterogeneous and competing components in the poem caused as the writer/reader transitions from one component to the another.
The behavior and context of each of those constituent elements and influences do not define how they behave collectively.
In a poem there is no central organizing mechanism or entity ordering things. There are several contributors.
The poem for writer/reader becomes an emergent self-organizing co-creation visited upon by the non-linear, continuously changing and exchanging influences and adaptations by the brain, language and participating media.
The planned and unplanned disorders, capricious symmetries and structural blueprints pressing themselves upon us are found in the poem’s diction, voice, tone, syntactic array, cadence, imagery, the strategic pulse and presence of each line . . . to name just a few.
A poem, like the brain, seeks a sensory, thought or emotional shaping and outcome of the world it experiences.
What a poem does is manifest that shaping and outcome through self-organization.
The collective experience and accumulation of these separate contributions to the poem is greater than the sum of their parts. It moves within a gradient of the individual element and the many as experienced in passing from one point or moment to another.
Modern physics observes a similar process called renormalization theory that “describes in detail how the properties of a physical system change if one increases the length scale on which the observations are made.”
A poem shows that what you see will always be more than what you see . . .
where an unexpected word can bring to light the devious distillate of a poem it being the methodical synchronicity of the latitudes and longitudes of triangulations from the surface of a sphere to points on an emotional plane where
expressions quite luminous emerge in electrochemical appetites and yet while no appearance can reliably occur apart from the countless pathways of its happening these preferences will make known how every brain endlessly
calculates neuronal coordinates in coordination with a heart veering from external angles into technical or harmonizing sense feelings leading to a likeness well beyond appearance seen with a point of view looking
through eyes expecting to locate a relationship in a place where sensations in the mind are perceived as a puzzle with more than one solution
Tune in to my next post on Monday, April 29 to read “The Fireflies of Poetry”
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Edward Carson, writer and photographer, is twice winner of the E.J. Pratt Medal in Poetry and author of Knots, Birds Flock Fish School, and Taking Shape, as well as his most recent collection, Look Here Look Away Look Again. He lives in Toronto.