12 feb. 2011

Private Language

I don't believe poetry speaks in a private or recondite language, or that literary critics are those people better at finding deep or hidden meanings in poems. I don't believe that I am better at interpreting a text than the average critic. I wish I was even worse than I am!

A very clever critic concluded that Machado's famous line "a distinguir me paro las voces de los ecos" (I stop to distinguish between voices and echoes) meant the opposite of what everyone else has always thought. Everyone thinks that voices are authentic and echoes inauthentic, and this critic decided it was the opposite. There is only one small problem here: Machado could not have expected anyone to read the line this way. Even if he meant it in this way (which I don't think he did), he would not have expected his readers to understand him. The meaning is what the words mean, not what some investigator uncovers in some letter Machado wrote. If a poet uses private imagery, then I feel free to interpret it as I want to, according to my own private scale of values. I don't really care what the poet meant. On the other hand, if a poet is using symbols the same way everyone else does, then I have full access to those meanings because I understand what those public symbols are. The winter is barrenness, the sun is the source of life, a tree is a person, a fire is passion, up is good and down is bad, a road is a person's life, Autumn is maturity and plenitude, or the anticipation of winter, twilight is the end of something, wings are freedom of movement and other types of freedom by extension, coldness is lack of emotional warmth, the nightengale is the poetic voice of nature. These are symbols that I understand and that everyone understands equally well. The only people who don't think they do not understand are those so intimidated that they think meanings are hidden in the poem, and so refuse to believe what they are reading with their own eyes. When Quevedo writes "mi báculo, más corvo y menos fuerte," we understand that his staff is more curved and less strong. We know what his stick and sword represent.

There is a kind of poetic difficulty which is all on the surface. Take Góngora's "Repetido latir, si no vecino / distinto oyó de can siempre despierto." Take it, please! Once you've figured it out, you've figured it out and the difficulty disappears. "He heard the repeated barking (if not close by, loud enough the hear) of the always wakeful dog." The difficulty is in calling the dog can instead of perro, and some tricky syntax. He does manage to use more suggestive language: distinto is both loud and distinctive, vecino is both near and neighborly, latir is both barking and pulsating, rhythmical, but we have no problem seeing what he is saying.

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