I hid and you sook – Beckett, 'Whoroscope'
I have been reading (and not getting) poetry for 35 years. I get some of it but there is far more out there that I don't get. For years I allowed myself to feel stupid when I didn't understand The Waste Land, The Cantos or The Maximus Poems. The fault had to be mine, I clearly wasn't clever enough and so I persisted, read more, understood little of what I was reading, couldn't find anyone to explain what I was reading and pretty much gave up reading poetry as a bad job.
My problem came from the premise from which I was working: words are containers for meanings > poems contain words > ergo poetry contained meaning. I still believe that, at its core, is what all writing does first and foremost; anything else is either a bonus or just coincidental. I've gone down the whole explication route, taken poems to pieces and not known how to put them back together.
Back in January Sean O'Brien won the T S Eliot Prize and there was an article in The Times about him or, more specifically about about.
What's it about? It's probably the question we poets hate hearing more than any other. The article has this to say:
The answer to the problem of "about" is simply, I think, to relax. Speaking after his win, O'Brien said: "We live in a prose world where poetry is an experience. People have to let themselves off the hook, absorb it, be with it and not expect to understand it." Being told that we shouldn't expect to understand things is – in a world of exams and target-setting – not necessarily comfortable.
If the poet isn't going to take responsibility for meaning then who is? I wrote a poem a while ago which addresses this issue:
READER PLEASE SUPPLY MEANING
Writers are all liars. We all are.
But at least they are honest liars.
They write down those necessary lies,
the kind that move men to leaps of faith
or excuse us when we fail to jump.
In the end it doesn't matter that
they let us down in the cruellest ways.
August 18, 1996
What has always fascinated me about fiction writing is its capacity to communicate fundamental truths via out and out lies: George and Lenny never existed, nor did Holden Caulfield or Capt. John Yossarian or Moby Dick or The Grinch. They're not real. They're all made up, figments of some guy's imagination. They're not true and if something's not true then it's a lie. Writers are all liars. I was brought up to believe that lying is wrong but it’s not.
If we examine my poem a little closer you'll see that's it's not as clear as it first appears. The first two statements are fine. They are statements of facts or at least opinions: the narrator believes that everyone is a liar and that obviously includes all writers. But there's a proviso in the third sentence, writers are described as "honest liars", an oxymoron. How can one be an "honest liar"? The second stanza sheds some light suggesting that there's reason, a necessity even, behind their needing to lie; they're doing it for us so that we can in some way justify our actions or abdicate responsibility in some way. But then we have the rider: the narrator says that in fact these writers – which must include himself – let us down and "in the cruellest ways" but what he might mean by that is left up to reader.
Does this poem succeed or fail because it demands the reader does some work? Have I let you down in some way?
Let's consider another poem, 'Orbs', by Carrie Berry. You'll need to click on the hyperlink to read the poem.
Now this is a beautifully presented piece. The twinkling stars which could look tacky manage not to. This poem was read in front of a constellation of astronomers who loved it – they're not like the rest of us, they didn't need to look up "baryon", "fusion waves" or "gamma" to get the thing. The thing is though, they thought they got it but they didn't. They liked the sound of it, because it used terminology they were familiar with but they couldn't see beyond that. "Ebon orbs" – that's got to be black holes? Right? Nope. It's about the way light danced in a girl's eyes. I know because I talked to her about the piece.
The question is: Is this a bad poem? Has the author short-changed us in some way? Does her use of astrobabble detract the reader?
How about this one, the short opening stanza to Beckett's 1930 poem, 'Whoroscope':
By the brother Boot it stinks fresh.
Give it to Gillot
You can read the whole poem, all 98 lines of it, here.
With some reluctance Beckett provided a series of footnotes to the poem, the first three of which help explain the opening stanza above:
- René Descartes, Seigneur du Perron, liked his omelette made of eggs hatched from eight to ten days; shorter or longer under the hen and the result, he says, is disgusting. He kept his own birthday to himself so that no astrologer could cast his nativity. The Shuttle of a ripening egg combs the warp of his days.
- In 1640 the brothers Boot refused Aristotle in Dublin.
- Descartes passed on the easier problems in analytical geometry to his valet Gillot.
Does it help? Or would you like some notes to explain his notes? Well, yes, but if a poem needs a pile of notes for it to make sense then is it a good poem? Beckett's poetry is notoriously difficult and obtuse. There's a good article on-line by Andrew Goodspeed entitled: Extremely Difficult & Occasionally Unpleasant: The Poetry of Samuel Beckett which is worth checking out. It is very clever poetry as is the poetry of Eliot and Pound but does that make it good? Some critics don't even consider 'Whoroscope' a proper poem. I've seen it called both a monologue and "chopped-up prose".
It is worthwhile noting what James Knowlson had to say about the piece in his biography of Beckett:
You would need to be a specialist on Descartes or to have read the books that Beckett had read to pick up many of the more obscure allusions. It certainly needs more extensive notes than Beckett added for its publication to make it fully comprehensible.
Should you have to know what a poem's about to know what it's about? Is poetry a game of hide and seek? Should they be puzzles to work out? And if so, don't all good puzzles have answers? Isn't it a disappointment somehow that we're expected to look for answers in textbooks or, worse still, in ourselves?
At the end of her 1991 poem 'Pieces of the Puzzle', Seattle poet Moreah Vestan says quite simply:
Who am I?
I am the writer who must tell you who I am, discover who you are.
I am a witness to your fear, to your faith, to your dance with the ebb
and flow of the moon—driven current of Life.
Who are we?
We are simply pieces to complete each other’s puzzle.
Is it wrong then to write esoteric poetry? No. It's also not wrong to write erotic poetry. It's actually quite a popular topic for poets. So I've heard. Esoterica, exactly like erotica, has a limited audience. And that's fine. What I think is perhaps a little naďve is to publish a poem that clearly has a hidden meaning – a "decoder ring poem" as my wife likes to call them – and then get upset or annoyed when people don't get it.
Sean O'Brien says we don't have to understand poems. But the man in the street being the contrary bugger he is will try his damndest to see meanings where there may not be any; he sees butterflies in inkblots, crabs in star formations and fluffy bunnies in clouds – he's even been known to find meaning in a poem.