Sunday, August 19, 2012

Poetry Monday: Does Poetry Need to Mean Something?

Last night while playing Boggle, I opened, as I often do, the book I was leaning on.  It was a book of poetry, sent to me for review from a well respected publisher. I won't name it as I have loved much of what this publisher has put out and have no desire to start a poetry war (and after all, Poetry Monday is about supporting poetry), but the first poem I came across was a seeming bunch of gobblydegook - random key-swipes on the laptop coupled with the odd ad phrase such as "soap on a rope".  Very little in this book made any sense to me at all.  Just to take another example, there was a concrete poem (couldn't tell what the picture was) consisting entirely of the letter a.

I don't want to go too far here in my criticisms. As a Joycean whose focus has been on the early 20th century modernists, I'm hardly against literary experimentation. However, the end point has got to be meaning. Even if that meaning is hard to come by and opens new areas of perception. Even if the meaning comes out of the kind of excessively simplified populist performance that (sometimes) makes up the slam. When you just throw words, and letters about in random patterns and syntax with no organisational principles - at least none that are comprehensible to the reader - you degrade, rather than explore and expand language.

Yes, I know there's a literary form called "Asemic Writing". This is writing that is specifically and openly devoid of semantical content. The basic tenet is that it leaves the way open for the reader to provide his or her own interpretation. Surely providing semantical content is the writer's job. Good poetry always allows room for interpretation and reader collaboration. Without any strong referent though, there's little to start the conversation. 

Maybe the problem is with me. I'm quite willing to accept that. This book has won big awards. The poet, even more. Maybe my sense of humour is faulty. I do get that there's a kind of joke here, but I read it as a joke on poetry itself - a single trick that wears thin after the first time. Call me old-fashioned, but I want signifiers when I read. They can be subtle. They can take effort. They can be shocking and intense. But they have to add up to something for me as a reader. In the space between extreme estotericism and trite populism, there has to be a place where something meaningful happens with language - a place of connection between the writer and reader. This is poetry's great focus; its great gift.  Otherwise it's just cacophany and emptiness.  And there's already plenty of that.

What do you think? Is meaning making an important part of poetry or am I missing the point of asemic writing? Tell me what you think - and please don't feel you need to agree with me - I'd like to hear a justification of this kind of art.


  1. Art is bigger than the artist in the sense that the viewer (reader) makes it work for themselves. The intention of the artist need not be, and is probably better, if not obvious. Much of that is value judgement though, isn't it?

    A poem made of the letter a is more to do with questioning poetry as a form. It made you respond, and that could be interesting, but it is not interesting enough for me. Trying too hard not be didactic is almost as bad as preaching from a pulpit. The world is the raw material and my perception of nature informs much of my writing, I do not need it filtered by pretentious artists when I can see the real thing. An artist who clarifies, crystalises and comments upon nature will capture my interest more surely than one who plays games with interpretation.

    This is an age old discussion. I am likely to change sides many times.

  2. Thank you for your response, Mavis. I do agree with you that it's always a value judgement and that evoking a response is also part of what an artist is trying to do with his or her work. Like you, I'm willing to waver on the issue and argue for, and against, experimentalism. Some experimental art takes me places that I feel I need to go to learn, to grow, to change, but when the work is simply a joke on itself ('questioning poetry as a form') then the joke gets stale pretty fast, especially when it's repeated again and again. Nevertheless, I have to admit that I'm interested in exploring the issues around asemic writing more, and that, in itself, is probably a result of the confrontation of this work.