Writer in Residence

What a Poem Does, Not what it Means

By Edward Carson

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.