The Meaning of difficult poetry: an introduction.

The meaning of any particular poem is a complex issue. 'Meaning' can be thought of in a number of different ways-

In Western culture we all have a desire to get to grips with what things mean, with what the artist intended in laying this object before us and this may be a mistake. Reading a poem or a novel is an intensely subjective experience, we each bring our life experiences and thoughts with us when we read and place particular emphasis on those parts that have 'meaning' for us. This can of course lead us to overead, to glean meanings that were never part of the poet's original intention.

I've quoted this passage from Ashbery's 'The Skaters' elsewhere but it does address the poetic meaning problem in some detail:

It is time now for a general understanding of
The meaning of all this. The meaning of Helga, importance of the setting etc.
A description of the blues. Labels on bottles
And all kinds of discarded objects that ought to be described.
But can one ever be sure of which ones?
Isn't this a death-trap, wanting to put too much in
So the floor sags, as under the weight of a piano, or a piano-legged girl
And the whole house of cards comes dinning down around one's ears!
But this is an important aspect of the question
Which I am not ready to discuss, am not at all ready to,
This leaving-out business. On it hinges the very importance of what's novel
Or autocratic, or dense or silly. It is as well to call attention
To it by exaggeration, perhaps. But calling attention
Isn't the same thing as explaining, and as I said I am not ready
To line phrases with the costly stuff of explanation, and shall not,
Will not do so for the moment. Except to say that the carnivorous
Way of these lines is to devour their own nature, leaving
Nothing but a bitter impression of absence, which as we know involves presence, but still
Nevertheless these are fundamental absences, struggling to get up and be off themselves

This, thus, is a portion of the subject of this poem
Which is in the form of falling snow
That is, the individual flakes are not essential to the importance of the whole's becoming so much of a truism
That their importance is again called in question, to be denied further out, and again and again like this
Hence, neither the importance of the individual flake,
Nor the importance of the whole impression of the storm, if it has any, is what it is,
But the rhythm of a series of repeated jumps, from abstract into positive and back to a slightly less diluted abstract.

Mild effects are the result.
I cannot think any more of going out into all that, will stay here
With my quiet schmerzen. Besides the storm is almost over
Having frozen the face of the bust into a strange style with the lips
And the teeth the most distinctive part of the whole business

It is this madness to explain...

What is the matter with plain old-fashioned cause-and-effect?
Leaving one alone with romantic impressions of the trees, the sky?
Who, actually, is going to be fooled one instant by these phony explanations
Think them important? So back we go to the old, imprecise feelings, the
Common knowledge, the importance of duly suffering and the occasional glimpses
Of some balmy felicity. The world of Schubert's lieder. I am fascinated
Though by the urge to get out of it all, by going
Further in and correcting the whole mismanaged mess. But am afraid I'll
Be of no help to you. Good-bye.

This wry and clever response to the readerly quest for meaning or intention should be kept in mind as it deflates the self-importance and pomposity of such a venture. Some have argued that all of Ashbery's work can be read as an investigation and exploration of poetic meaning but I think the above emphases on absence(s) and the jumps 'from abstract into positive' have characterised most of his output since the above poem was published in 1966.

Reading this for the first time certainly enabled me to be more relaxed about my reading and consequent understanding of poetry and, together with the Prynne quote below, has changed the way in which I try to make sense of what is before me. The first read through now asks 'does this work' rather than 'what does this mean', I concede that I have my own entirely subjective view of whether a poem works or not but this does at least give me a usually more productive means of entry.

Dealing with poetic meaning.

The first question to be asked is: does meaning matter? it is perfectly possible to get a lot from a poem and still remain baffled as to the poet's intention in writing it. It is also possible to take your own meaning from a poem regardless of those intentions.This is not to say that all poems are 'open' texts whereby anything can be taken to mean anything at all but rather that we should try to be less concerned, as readers, with performing a forensic analysis in order to come up with some kind of 'definitive meaning.

The other aspect to bear in mind is that poets rarely start a poem with an exact idea of what they want to say, they may have an idea of subject matter but what they say about that subject matter only emerges during composition.

Difficult poets are usually difficult because the meaning of the work is complex and operates on several levels. Charles Olson's 'The Maximus Poems' may be read as a work about place but can also be viewed as a meditation on the nature of history and the function of the archive as well as a poetic expression of the philosophical works of Alfred North Whitehead and the emphasis put on each of these strands will depend on the readers' interest.

Ambiguous images and phrases are always problematic for those searching for meaning. Paul Celan's 'templeclamps' poem from the 'Atemwende' collection can be taken to mean the forceps used in the delivery room or the electrodes placed on the temples in ECT treatment for those with severe depression. We know that Celan underwent such treatment and I know from personal experience that ECT is deeply unpleasant and can have nasty side-effects but I'm also prepared to accept that Celan may have intended to refer to birthing forceps.

This is Pierre Joris' translation of the poem in full:

    eyed by your jugalbone.
    Its silverglare there
    where they gripped:
    you and the rest of your sleep-
    will be your birthday.

I think this underlines that poems may be radically ambiguous, that the second line can refer to the action of forceps and to the placement of electrodes, that the silverglare can refer to light that the baby sees as it is born and the glare created by the electric shocks inside the brain as they pass from one temple to the other, that the rest of your sleep can refer to the time that a baby spends in the womb and to the sedation used whlst ECT is administered, and that birthday can refer to the day of one's birth and to the day when (as a result of ECT) the depression lifts and the patient is once again able to live a reasonable life.

This doesn't preclude other meanings or intentions- 'temple' and 'silverglare' could point us towards religion for example but it does underline the need to be able to tolerate multiple themes and meanings.

In reading difficult verse, Keston Sutherland has written of the need to pay attention to difficult verse and to undertake the 'work of interpretation'. Whilst this would seem reasonable, I think it is important that readers do not allow interpretation to detract from the enjoyment of reading the poem. There are those poets that do require a degree of work (Prynne, Celan, Hill) but this work should be pleasurable and readers should not be deterred if the 'meaning' remains hidden from them.

Interpretation consists of several tasks, the most important of which is to work out what is being said. This isn't always easy and readers may find it useful to (for the want of a better term) improvise, to run a particular phrase or allusion around their heads in different ways until a solution that makes some kind of 'sense' is arrived at and then to compare this with other parts of the poem to see if there is any kind of congruence or 'fit'. The other part of interpretive work involves looking up words and references that the reader is not familiar with.

An attentive reading of 'TEMPLECLAMPS' will reveal that:

It is up to the individual to decide how far to pursue references and when to stop. My own recent reading of David Jones' 'The Anathemata' has forced me to acknowledge huge gaps in my knowledge base (Welsh language and culture, Malory, the history of London, the Catholic liturgy etc.) and some of these I have begun to pursue in order to get more from the poem.

Difficult poets are fond of using collage and montage as means of expression and it is important to be able to recognise these devices when working out poetic intention and meaning.

Difficult poets on the Meaning Problem.

J H Prynne (the most difficult poet currently writing in English) has said recently-

The discourses of modernism in Western poetics make steeper descents into sub-intelligibility; and in my own case I am rather frequently accused of having more or less altogether taken leave of discernible sense. In fact I believe this accusation to be more or less true, and not to me alarmingly so, because what for so long has seemed the arduous royal road into the domain of poetry ("what does it mean?") seems less and less an unavoidably necessary precondition for successful reading.

Paul Celan in the 1958 Bremen Address said-

A poem, as a manifestion of language and thus essentially dialogue, can be a message in a bottle, sent out in the - not always greatly hopeful - belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash up on land, on heartland perhaps. Poems in this sense too are underway: they are making towards something.

Both poets seem to be implying the same thing. Prynne is suggesting that the quest for meaning shouldn't get in the way of experiencing the poem whilst Celan hopes that his poems will 'reach' some readers but recognises that this won't always be the case and in any case poems make a journey through the world.


The search for meaning in poetry is important, we do need to try and work out what is being said and why. It is also important to accept that meaning is only one aspect of poetry and should not be given absolute priority.

The other thing to recognise is that meanings change over time, that our view of the meaning of'Paradise Lost' is radically different from what it was in the 17th century.

It is infinitely rewarding to pay attention to difficult verse provided that we understand that a sense of meaning won't always be attained.