Issue Five

Autumn 2012


As Vernon Watkins said, "I'm a participant in the doctrine of constructive ambiguity". Sometimes I write poems and do not know what I mean by them. Is that good writing, or a cop out?

Obviously, I can’t answer that. Only someone else, a reader, reviewer, editor, workshopper can tell me whether the poem "works" – and by "work" they may mean something quite different from what any other reader, reviewer, editor or workshopper might mean. The poem is ambiguous. Readers respond differently.

I think there’s a difference between creating ambiguous work and creating unclear work. A poem may be unsuccessful, it may not work, if readers simply cannot get a handle on it because it is too obscure, too personal, too difficult in its construction, too open, too imprecise, too complex. Obscurity, meanings which are totally open, massive complexity and repeated imprecision are typically bad things in poetry. I know one can’t be dogmatic in such cases, but I think this is generally true. They do create ambiguity, ambiguity creates difficulty and difficulty causes a reader to struggle with meaning and that struggle probably proves frustrating or unrewarding. This sort of ambiguity, where the reader is puzzled, but gets no gratification out of attempting to unravel that puzzle, is probably not good work.

Notice that I don’t say that a good poem means the reader must find a solution, nor that the puzzle of the poem must even be soluble. I think it has to be addressable. That is, I think the reader has to feel that she or he has some ways of approaching the mystery, a way of attempting the poem which might yield feeling or meaning or intent or explanation. There are probably an infinite number of ways to read poems, but what we typically do as readers (I guess) is look for clues in the text on which we can hang little "theories" of what is going on. We might see the title as a context or a subject tag. We might identify words of time, place and person which set up narrative links. Descriptions give us images, which we may relate to familiar images of our own, such as memories.

And, as a reader, we aim to link these various clues into some sort of overall pattern. We look for such things as "development" (e.g. a continual narrative), "consistency" (e.g. of tone, mood, image), "emotional state", "idea" (e.g. a position or argument) and so on. These can be simple gratifications, as in a lyric poem which merely touches a specific moment or feeling, or they can be quite complex, where the associations, implications, resonances reach across culture or history or deep into language, or where a poem sets off in one simple direction and then moves into something very different.

For me, then, thinking in this particular way, one creative tactic is to build a poem which is consistently ambiguous. That is to say, it is not open about its actual meaning or intent, but it is consistent in presentation of that thing, that x-factor, whatever it is. Some list poems are like this, telling us "it is like a tambourine left in the rain, it’s a lighthouse without power, it is mist on a June river" but never naming the "it". Such poems can be written easily, yet sometimes work, in the sense I mean above: they give something to readers, even though they may give different things to different readers. Whether this is poetic sleight of pen, or something more sophisticated, I’m not equipped to say. What I can say, though, is that sometimes such poems work, and sometimes they don’t.

There are rather more sophisticated approaches though, which yield deeper, or perhaps richer, ambiguities yet still remain consistent in their poetic intent. I remember Maurice Riordan during a class saying "take an emotion, and put it beside your poem. But don’t put it in the poem." At the time, I didn’t understand what he meant. How could a feeling be "outside" the poem, and yet still be useful in creating a decent piece? Now, I think I do. The idea is that you have a thing to convey, something that is underneath, beside, colouring the work, but never explicit on the page.

You may, for example, want to write about the destructiveness of love. One way to do this would be to write a poem in which two lovers destroy each other. That would be literal, descriptive and, quite possibly, dull. Or you might have that intent "beside" your poem, and instead write about what you see outside your window. Each object you record, the magpie picking over leaves in the gutter, the chain biting into the sycamore as it grows, the window-cleaner assiduously washing the outside of windows that are dusty and stained within, will be tainted by that purpose, and, as you refine the poem, keeping that intent at hand, you will select the images, trim the language, move towards a form which reflects that intent, though it is nowhere stated. I’ve just been reading Jane Kenyon, and she seems to do this all the time: she writes a poem about a country inn and hay-bales, but tells you how grief harms those who grieve.

The poem that results is ambiguous, therefore. It nowhere tells you what it is about. It could be about anything. But it brings to the puzzle a whole series of words and images which fit together, which work in consonance: it is consistently ambiguous, and out of it readers can build their own version of something that it may be about. It might be how love destroys itself, or how lovers are self-deceiving, or the inevitable decay of all relationships, or entropy, or the way the world forces us to be other than we want to be – anything, really, that the reader can bring into play from her or his own experience and fit to the template of the poem.

For me, that kind of ambiguity makes great poetry.