Ambiguity and Poetry

The starting point for most discussions of poetic ambiguity is William Empson's 'Seven Types of Ambiguity' which was first published in 1930 and contains the most detailed analysis of the different kinds of ambiguity and how these might function. In the 2nd edition of 'Seven Types' Empson gives the following as a definition: "any verbal nuance, however slight, which gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language." He contrasts this with ambiguity used in ordinary speech which he defines as "something very pronounced and, as a rule, witty or deceitful".

Many writers since have sought to make the issue of ambiguity more complex than it actually is. There are ambiguities that are deliberately hidden in the poem and require some unearthing before any kind of analysis can take place. There are other ambiguities that signal themselves as such and only then require the reader to give weight to the respective 'meanings'. All such devices call into question the authority and veracity of what's being said by providing (or hinting at) an alternative reading which may be just as baffling as the initial or straightforward meaning.

It is however no coincidence that poets who are considered to be the most difficult are also those that make the most extreme use of ambiguity. Both J H Prynne and Paul Celan make extensive use of words and phrases that have many different meanings and their poetry is put together in such a way that most of these possible readings appear feasible.

It's also important to stress that ambiguity can add to the pleasure of reading a poem, that weighing up the various possibilities of meaning is in itself a rewarding and facinating activity, providing that the reader isn't looking for a fixed meaning and is prepared, for example, to recognise the many ambiguities in Prynne's use of 'to mother up' in "To Pollen" without settling one one single, all-encompassing definition.

Learning to tolerate ambiguity

Some poets use words and phrases to mean two or three things at once, relying on the reader to identify the various possibilities and then to decide which is the one that 'counts'. Other poets use ambiguity to describe several dimensions within a single theme with each dimension being equally important or valid.

In either case it is crucially important that the reader learns to accept that there won't always be an immediately apparent and definitive meaning and that the poet's intention won't always be immediately clear. It is this sense of uncertainty that deters many people from engaging with difficult verse because we expect that poems should provide us with access to this intention and become frustrated when this isn't the case.

Paul Celan's later work thrives on ambiguity, the poems use words that have several possible definitions and one of the many pleasures of a Celan poem is keeping those variations in mind when reading. In 'Orchards of Syon', Geoffrey Hill has several attempts on the meaning of 'Atemwende' without reaching a conclusion. The literal translation of this compound word is 'breathturn' and it is important because Celan uses it in his Meridian address which was the only occasion that he spoke at length about his poetics. He then used it as the title for his 1967 collection which marks the beginning of his brilliant late period. It also crops up in one of the poems in that collection. As Hill shows, breathturn carries within it several different meanings each of which has a distinct effect on what is being siad.

What Hill may be saying (and this isn't entirely clear either) is that we won't ever know what Celan meant but that it is important to keep the various options in mind. His 'Comus' refers to Milton's use of 'Haemony' providing two possible meanings before coming to the conclusion that "Haemony means whatever Milton | meant by it."

In an interview with Evylene Grossman, Jacques Derrida has said:

"Each poem is a resurrection, but one engages us to a vulnerable body, one that may be forgotten again. I believe that all Celan's poems remain in a certain way indecipherable, retain some indecipherability and the indecipherabile can either call endlessly for a sort of reinterpretation, resurrection, or new interpretative breath, or, on the contrary, it can perish or waste away once more. Nothing insures a poem against its own death, either because the archive can always be burnt in crematoria or in flames, or because, without being burnt it can simply be forgotten, or not interpreted, or left to lethargy. Oblivion is always possible." From 'Sovereignties in Question: the Poetics of Paul Celan' p107

J H Prynne, the current master of the ambiguous phrase, has also recently commented on this risk of 'oblivion':

"But what happens if the surprises produced by difficult and unfamiliar combinations of language seem so extreme and excessive that the underlying tendency becomes near-impossible to discover, making choices between alternative meanings seem arbitary and obscure? In such cases the effect is not a rewarding surprise but an experience close to bafflement. We lose confidence in the text or in our ability to deal with it adequately. Here, extended passages of difficult language seem like incomprehensible obstacles, because access to meaning seems blocked. Does this then mean that the skills of the careful reader are defeated, possibly be features of damaging incoherence within the original text itself? That may sometimes be the case." From "Difficulties in the Translation of 'Difficult' Poems" in Issue 3 of the Cambridge Literary Review June 2010.

Ambiguity has always been a feature of poetry but it became prominent with the advent of Modernist poetry and especially with the publication of The Wasteland. Problems with ambiguous phrases arise when the none of the alternative meanings 'fit' into the rest of the poem and the reader can only make a judgement about this when the various threads have been identified. The risk is that bafflement takes over and the reader simply walks away.

17th century ambiguity- Milton and Marvell.

In order to demonstrate that the ambiguous isn't just a modernist device, I want to present two examples of ambiguity that critics have argued over for the last 350 years. Milton's 'Lycidas' contains this;

The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed.
But swoll'n with wind, and the rank mist they draw,
Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread:
Besides what the grim wolf with privy paw
Daily devours apace, and nothing said
But that two-handed engine at the door,
Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more.

Since publication 'two-handed engine' has provoked many different interpretations even though the meaning of this part of the poem is fairly clear- a polemic against paid clergy. I think it is important to recognise that we can never know what the two-handed engine refers to and Milton may be referring to more than one particular object or concept.It should ber fairly clear however that the engine is the instrument by which the corrupt activities of the clergy will be rectified.

In the Longman edition of Milton's shorter poems, John Carey lists twenty two different interpretations of this engine, all of which appear reasonably feasible given what we know of Milton's views and the images that were in use at the time. No doubt further readings will be provided as time passes but none of these will ever provide a definitive solution.

Marvell's 'An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland' is considered by many to be the finest politicial poem in the English language and one of the aspects that makes it so good is that the poet's intention is never made clear. He appears to be praising Cromwell but at the same time painting an admiring and poignant portrait of Charles I on the scaffold. Cromwell is praised for his military prowess but the poem also carries accusations of personal ambition and duplicitous cunning.

As with the abvoe example, critics have been divided as to Marvell's 'true' intention but it is more likely that Marvell is expressing his own very ambiguous feelings about the two main protagonsists. It is possible to admire Charles' dignity prior to his execution and also to concede that Cromwell is a strong and succesful leader. However our need for certainty in these matters has again led to endless and futile debate which to some extent detracts from the reader's enjoyment of the poem.

This is Marvell on Cromwell:

    And now the Irish are asham’d
    To see themselves in one year tam’d;
             So much one man can do
             That does both act and know.
    They can affirm his praises best,
    And have, though overcome, confest
             How good he is, how just,
             And fit for highest trust;
    Nor yet grown stiffer with command,
    But still in the republic’s hand;
             How fit he is to sway
             That can so well obey.

Whereas this is Marvell on the execution of Charles I:

    That thence the royal actor borne
    The tragic scaffold might adorn,
             While round the armed bands
             Did clap their bloody hands.
    He nothing common did or mean
    Upon that memorable scene,
             But with his keener eye
             The axe’s edge did try;
    Nor call’d the gods with vulgar spite
    To vindicate his helpless right,
             But bowed his comely head
             Down as upon a bed.

Paul Celan and "ambiguity without a mask".

In a careful analysis of "Solve" and "Coagula" (poems from the "Atmwende" collection) Anders Olsson has analysed the nature of ambiguity with regard to the use of the name "Rosa" in "Coagula". This is the poem in its entirety:

Your wound
too, Rosa

And the hornslight of your
Romanian buffaloes
in star's stead above the
sandbed, in the
talking red-

(Translation by Pierre Joris, not the version that Olsson uses.)

Most writers are in agreement that an alchemical theme links "Solve" and "Coagula" and that this has strong connections to both Jewish and Christian Mysticism. The problem arises with the identity of Rosa, for which there are a least four feasible candidates. The first is the figure from early Christianity which Olsson describes as "most often a synonym for Mary". The second is Rosa Luxemburg a revolutionary heroine who was murdered by the German Freikorps in 1919 and the third is Rosa Leibovici with whom Celan had a brief affair in 1940. The fourth candidate is the maid in the Kaka short story "Ein Landarzt" ("A country Doctor"), in this case Rosa is a maid who is wounded when a farmhand throws himself upon her and bites her on the cheek. The evidence for Rosa Luxemburg is strong because she wrote a letter whilst in prison describing in detail the harsh treatment of the Romanian Buffaloes that were used to draw wagons laden with old uniforms from the front. Rosa Leibovici is mentioned in Israel Chalfen's biography of Celan who puts her forward as a candidate as she came from Moldavia, the home of the Romanian buffalo. Kafka's Rosa is also apt because of the wound but also because her plight is ignored by the doctor who goes on to be haunted by his negligence.

So, the question we need to ask is whether Celan is being deliberately and wilfully difficult in leading the reader this merry dance or whether there is something else afoot. Olsson helps us out with the following quote from a conversation that the poet had with Hugo Huppert:

And as regards my alleged encodings, I would rather say: ambiguity without a mask, is expresses precisely my feeling for cutting across ideas, an overlapping of relationships. You are of course familiar with the manifestation of interference, coherent waves meeting and relating to one another. You know of dialectic conversions and reversals - transitions into something akin, something succeeding, even something contradictory. That is what my ambiguity (only at certain turning-ponts, certain axes of rotation present) is about. It stands in consideration to the fact that we can observe several facets in one thing, showing it from various angles, "breaks" and "divisions" which are by no means only illusory. I try to recapitulate in language at least fractions of this spectral analysis of things: related, succeeding, contradictory. Because, unfortunately, I am unable to show these things from a comprehensive angle.

This would seem to indicate that the four Rosas do not present a choice but that they represent four different facets of the same thing that this ambiguity, this fluidity is not intended as a hindrance but as an aid to the reader who is prepared to go with the "something akin, succeeding and contradictory" as opposed to straightfoward notions of meaning.

I don't intend to go into a full reading of "Solve" and "Coagula" but I think this is an important illustration of accepting ambiguity and that words can refer to several things at once. What is also interesting is that Prynne's more recent writings on poetry seem to reflect Celan's focus especially with regard to the dialectic and contradiction.