Poetry and the flight from meaning
Earlier this year I took part in a debate entitled In Defence of Poetry organised by the Leeds Salon. Just before that event took place, someone suggested that we read out Introduction to Poetry, by Billy Collins, which invites readers to experience poems in various ways instead of trying to understand them. Unfortunately, according to Collins, they are not up to the task: ‘all they want to do / is tie the poem to a chair with rope / and torture a confession out of it. / They begin beating it with a hose / to find out what it really means.’
Other poets before Collins have argued against meaning as authorial intention. ‘There is no true meaning of a text. The author has no authority … a text is like an apparatus which each of us uses in our own way’, wrote French poet Paul Valéry. Wordsworth criticised ‘our meddling intellect’ that tries too hard to understand: ‘we murder to dissect’.
These poets were reacting against the utilitarian philistinism now represented in our collective consciousness by the Dickensian teacher Thomas Gradgrind, who warned his pupils against the lure of the imagination and insisted that only facts matter.
When Roland Barthes, pictured right, proclaimed the “death of the author” in 1968, he was convinced that ‘to refuse meaning is a truly revolutionary activity’, the author function being a creation of modern individualism and capitalist ideology. However, now that postmodern ideas are dominant, they don’t look so subversive. On the contrary, the decline of authority has led some examination boards to select poems through customer focus groups – just like any other commodity.
Any schoolchild will tell you that in poetry ‘there are no right or wrong answers.’ Students are often taught that the teacher’s opinion (embodying, ideally, a lifetime of personal study and centuries of literary criticism and canon formation) is no more valid than their first impressions – it’s a matter of personal taste after all, and aesthetic judgment is a fraud. It takes a brave soul like parent Joseph Reynolds to argue that The Simpsons is not good enough for the English curriculum – thoroughly ignored, incidentally, by parent-power enthusiasts.
Many poets abhor the idea that authorial intention is a privileged locus of meaning. ‘Whatever meaning you see in my poems, that’s their meaning, even if I hadn’t thought of it,’ Gillian Clarke told my GCSE students. When Wendy Cope, who doesn’t seem so keen on authorial euthanasia, insisted with a group of sixth-formers that her poem Budgie Finds His Voice had nothing to do with environmentalism but was instead about Ted Hughes, they ‘tried to argue that it might, nonetheless, say something about Wendy Cope’s views on pollution and global warming.’ ‘I had to be very firm,’ says Cope, showing the difficulty of asserting authorial intention at a time when ‘the author has no authority.’
And yet we cannot live without meaning, and a purely personal meaning means nothing. Many of us continue to read poems in order to understand what their authors have to say, knowing that we may find some important truth about human experience, some startlingly new and better way of looking at the world.
Throughout October and November, The Independent Online is partnering with the Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest blogs from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.
Michele Ledda is the co-ordinator of the Civitas Supplementary Schools Project, Yorkshire and an organiser of the Leeds Salon. He spoke at the event “Poetry and the tyranny of relevance” at the Battle of Ideas festival on Sunday 31 October. The next Leeds Salon event “Is unfettered growth possible or desirable?” takes place on Monday 15 November 2010 at The Carriageworks, Leeds.
Picture: Getty Images
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