11 jul. 2005

The Cream Filled Donut Theory of Poetic Meaning.

It's interesting, because I was thinking, after writing my original post, that I have used paraphrase in teaching and in writing about poetry. That is, I think it perfectly legitimate to say, "give me a paraphrase of this poem," in other words, an approximation of what you gather to be the semantic nugget of this text. After all, we all do, when reading poetry, formulate some sort of interpretation that, if verbalized, can be a useful heuristic tool for discussing the poem. The fallacy would be in overestimating the significance of some stand-alone paraphrase, which can not be either defiinitive or adequate. The verbal structure of the paraphrase itself can get in the way. Arriving at an adequate paraphrase is not the end goal. It is simply a tool. I cannot even say that it is one that should always be used.

How would I paraphrase this text?:


I can walk through only one park at a time. There is no danger of it turning into another park. Its borders are secure. No, it's not that:

The parks are separated by non-park-like expanses. Each park has its own rules. I don't think about the rules of the park I'm not in. That's what I call "parsimony." There is little danger of accidentally obeying a rule from another park. No one would think about it like that. Me least of all.

Obeying a rule is not an emphatic gesture, like reaching for a weapon at a predictable point in the story. There are no weapons allowed in most of the parks, unless you count shoe-laces and sand.

When in doubt I obey a code of my own devising; its prohibitions are scarcely onerous. I pass through unnoticed, through the park. Whichever park it happens to be.

The non-park-like expanses are governed by other laws. I am not thinking about them, in the park.


I am the author, so I presumably have some insight into the meanings were intended here. I know what the poem is "about," following rules, whether consciously or unconsciously. Yet there are many things I don't know about the poem either. Is the speaker a conformist, obsessed by obeying the law but trying to seem more nonchalant about it? Or is he (or she?) a kind of lost soul, for whom these imaginary rules serve as a kind of spurious security? Does the poet view these park rules as repressive or comforting? Do the parks seem like safe havens or dangerous terrains? Why does the speaker not name the city streets that come between the parks, resorting instead to the euphemism "non-park-like expanses." What is the relation of this poem to Thelonious Monk and the Monk title phrase "Well you needn't"? There are a lot of questions that I could answer, but no better than any other reader of the poem. Two readers might come up with separate paraphrases and then use them to argue about what "I" really meant.

UPDATE: Another variable I have no control over, as author, is whether the poem is compelling enough to even provoke a reader's curiosity.

1 comentario:

Robert dijo...

Some poems seem to have a sort of "meta-meaning." For example, you could say that your statement about your own piece that "There are a lot of questions that I could answer, but no better than any other reader of the poem" is itself part of the meaning of the piece.

Take an extreme example like John Cage's piece of music, 4'33" (four minutes, 33 seconds of silence). I think of the Zen saying that "However much you may be proud of your understanding, when the opposites arise you have lost the way." Something like that might be a decent paraphrase of the meaning of the piece: to break through the mind's habit of dividing sound into the opposites of music and not-music.

I'm not sure it's any easier or harder to paraphrase the meaning of avant-garde vs. traditional work, though maybe the "meaning" of some poems is found nearer or farther from the "content" depending on how traditional they are. Part of the music of Cage's piece is the coughing of the audience and the traffic outside the concert hall, but the piece is not meaningful one day and meaningless the next just because one day a car honks its horn (the content) during the 4'33" and the next day it doesn't.