Sunday, 29 December 2013

Another go at reducing my readership

Meaning in Poetry

‘Poetry is not made out of ideas, it is made out of words.’ Thus Mallarmé to Degas. A straightforward enough truth, but one often ignored or misunderstood. Shelley ignored it in his more overtly political writings, and so have countless propagandists before and since. The results are always dire — they may be verse, but never poetry — however much we may sympathize with the ideas expressed. What confuses the issue is that some of the writers of such verse, for example Shelley, were also poets, whereas most of them never were, because they thought poetry to be merely one of a number of possible vehicles for ideas. They had forgotten, or never knew, that the words come first.

A more interesting ignorance or misunderstanding is that which takes Mallarmés dictum and jumps to the invalid conclusion that the meaning doesn’t matter. That something comes second, or third, or twenty-sixth, doesn’t imply that it doesn’t matter; it may turn out to be what matters most: poetry is not a competitive sport. It’s just that in the normal course of affairs, when we are not writing, reading or hearing poetry, we have ideas and find words to express them. In poetry we have words and find that they express ideas.

What about Nonsense Poetry? In most cases it isn’t nonsense. There was, and probably is, something called ‘Concrete Poetry’, made of sounds rather than words. Good luck to it, and of course it may call itself what it likes, but it is probably more helpful to think of it as scat-singing without the tune than as poetry. What we think of as ‘Nonsense Poetry’ — Lear, Carroll, or in German Morgenstern and Ringelnatz — works so well precisely because of its ties — flexible but definite — to sense. Take, for example, the first verse (later verses are much less nonsensical) of ‘Jabberwocky’:


’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.


This is by no means nonsense. It uses a lot of made-up words, but they are recognizably words, and (pace  another of Carroll’s creations) it is as true of made-up words as of dictionary-words that they can’t mean whatever one chooses. Their meanings may be subject to differences of opinion — that is true also of dictionary-words — but they are delimited by the words’ sounds, their resemblances to ‘real’ words, their endings, and — perhaps most importantly, at any rate in English and German — their positions in what are recognizably sentences.

I want to examine more closely the verse just quoted. If the reader has borne with me, I think he will agree with much of what I say about it. If I have irritated her, she will perversely deny what I offer. Or one will prefer other interpretations, but in all cases I think they must admit that, even in the extreme case of Nonsense Poetry, meaning is vital.

 ’Twas brillig  This is clearly a statement about the weather. Bright and sunny, perhaps rather oppressive. If the BBC weather-man were daring enough to tell us that it will be brillig tomorrow, we should all understand.

and the slithy toves  Toves are some sort of living creature, plant or animal, and there is more than one of them. And they’re slithy: ‘slithy’ is obviously an adjective, or rather one of those adjective-y words — I can’t remember what they’re called — like ‘runny’ or ‘grassy’ — derived from verbs or nouns. Slithy things slithe; they are sly and/or slippery, like snakes or fish.

Did gyre and gimble  ‘Gyre’ is a perfectly good dictionary-word, and it’s been used by other poets. To gyre is to turn, about either one’s own axis or an external one; in the case of Yeats’s falcon, in an expanding spiral. As for ‘gimble’, gimbals are the double swivels in which compasses, lamps and what-not are slung on board ship, so that they remain vaguely level when the boat rolls and pitches. From within the moving boat, and taking it as one’s reference, the gimballed object wobbles about with a motion that might well be called ‘gimbling’.

in the wabe  Fair enough, I’m not sure about ‘wabe’. It’s perhaps a swamp or marsh, or maybe a glebe, of the sultry sort in which one faints.

All mimsy  We all know what ‘mimsy’ means. Pansies are mimsy, so is Violet Elizabeth Bott in the ‘William’ books.

were the borogoves  Borogoves are surely some sort of single-stemmed multi-bloomed flower, between foxgloves and hollyhocks.

And the mome raths  Mome raths are larger, darker creatures. Perhaps trees, perhaps something like mammoths. Faintly sinister.

outgrabe  Clearly a verb, and clearly (from the ‘out’) expressing an extreme action. Also clearly in the past tense. ‘Outgrobing’, if that is the present participle, is just the sort of thing one might expect mome raths, with their finger-like twigs, or twig-like fingers, to do.


You see? Oh, come on.

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