On my personal blog, I’ve just noted Kim Moore’s kind comments on my poem Sunburn. I don’t dissent from anything she says about it (probably because her comments are all pleasant ones). But she notes it’s “one of those rare poems – a poem about work!” Which it is, of course. However, another poet who, like Kim, I greatly admire, said it was a poem about sex.
Now, I’m not entirely sure that either of these topics was uppermost in my mind when I wrote it. I’m not sure exactly what was in my mind, in fact. Probably I was just writing, to see what might appear. Perhaps I can find the first draft and see if there’s any clue what I thought I was on about. I can remember part of the impulse, which was to write about a particular summer I remembered. However, it’s clear to me that the poem was hijacked by imagination to mutate away from the reality of what I remembered, and become something else. Something unanticipated. Something which has, in fact, meaning that surprises me. If it is about sex, that surprises me. Maybe even embarrasses me a little, to discover that’s where I was led in the writing.
One thing we like to find in poems we choose for Antiphon is poems with a second meaning: an undercurrent or interpretation that only reveals itself with very careful reading, perhaps not until the second or third attempt.
Sometimes when Simon Armitage runs a workshop he asks “what’s the poem about?” And, when he receives an answer, he then asks: “Now tell me what the poem’s really about.” A good poem, we might say, has a surface meaning, one that is readable and appreciable with relative ease, but also offers further, deeper, hidden possibilities. This may be created by the poet in a relatively intellectual way, where a puzzle of a kind is set for the reader. For example, in my youth I wrote a long poem which went “forwards” in five poetic sections and then “backwards” in five prose sections, each of the latter five mirroring something in the first five, yet the whole thing making a continuous narrative. The aim was that it could be read as a personal story of a protagonist and as a pair of contrastive philosophical positions. Surprisingly, it didn’t really work. It’s the sort of thing you do when you think you know it all. But, as an intellectual construct, it was an interesting exercise and did produce some moments of creative impact. I believe.
More often such puzzles are delivered through metaphor, perhaps an extended metaphor which governs the whole poem. For example, a poem about a falling tree may turn out to be an extended metaphor for a failing relationship. And the reader, once she twigs (sorry!) this, simply has to map equivalences from one situation to the other. Such a poem may give no clue at all as to its second meaning, leaving it up to the reader to “read in” the second interpretation. Or the poet may feel it necessary to offer a suggestive flag or pointer, perhaps as title or last line to guide the second reading. A clever poet might find an ambiguous word or phrase to do this job. “Moving Pictures”, for example, might be a poem about rearranging the iconic artwork in a gallery, and at the same time each picture mentioned could have some emotional resonance of the poet. (I’ve borrowed this idea from an album by Rush, in fact, which could maybe add even more resonance to such a poem).
More subtle, I think, are those poems which are not simply two situations yoked together (which is essentially what the extended metaphor does) but which uses one to give insights to the other, or which slides between different comparisons to yield insight that might not be found in any other way. Perhaps this might be done through radical imagery, such as that used by the Metaphysical poets (e.g. Donne’s compasses in A Valediction Forbidding Mourning though this image is largely explicated by the poet) and by contemporary poets who draw on science for imagery (e.g. Diana Syder’s “The Tuna is an Interesting Fish”). The chosen image may be emblematic or even deliberately (apparently) unconnected from the intended literal meaning: our love is like a pair of compasses, poverty is like the rings of Saturn.
There are risks in the approach which completely hides meaning, of course. The image may be too radical to work. It may feel, to the reader, like an arbitrary experiment done merely to be different, to appear original, to disturb or shock for its own sake. But when it works, what it can do is reveal something that was not previously felt or understood, a new union of what were previously (perceived to be) separate.
This sort of exploration is one of the things we really enjoy at Antiphon. Poems which do more than they appear to be. Poems which carry two – or perhaps more – meanings. Poems which can be read one way, and then another. Poems whose imagery is insightful, original, different. Even poems where the poet is not clear how the poem’s several meanings have come about.
Closing date for submissions for Issue #9 is the end of this week, so there’s still time for your latest multi-level magnum opus.