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John Horvath Jr
Simplicity is most difficult to achieve; it is often too complex for most of us. And most of us would make some simple responses to it. By "simplicity" I mean "openness to interpretation" at some level of text. That is to say, texts without simplicity are private, for the author only. Regardless how naive or theoretical that reader may be, texts ought to be open to a reader's knowledge,
Goethe posed three questions for every reader:
1. What did the artist set out to do?
For naive readers the answers can be simple: to write a poem; sure, anyone can do it; it IS a poem. Or: tell of an experience; it IS an experience; I read the experience, what's the big deal? We are, all of us, naive readers at one time or another. Not only when we are children do we assume that the author is the main character (biogrtaphy) or the main character is me -- or, like me-- (this is didacticism: teacher teaching pupil), but, also in our leisure reading, we are naive: I enjoy reading about places I have visited or things I have done or people like myself.
2. Was the plan reasonable/sensible?
3.How far were the artist's intentions achieved?
We all do. Businessmen read about businessmen, and so on. When it comes to poetry, simplicity and the naive answers block readers from exploring nuance, inhibit understanding, constrains the pleasureable AHA found in all art.
WHAT DID the artist intend? From distrust of your ability to discover on your own, from lack of skill, or from being naive, the poor artist will tell you. (Scholarly work may need a footnote or two, but that is not the norm in poetry.) Intent masquerades as form, pattern, and breach (Robert Bly calls it "leap"; I like breach because we must fill our breaches/breeches.) Every one of us spreaks and acts in a pattern; it is how someone recognizes us -- by MY walk, by MY voice. All the little things I do take form in another's mind; those who know me have a clearer sense of this form than do those less acquainted with me. As poets work with both types of audiences --those who know the poet and those who do not--the formal aspects of traditional poetry are availableto the poet and the reader. If it is fourteen lines long and about love, you have a sonnet. But, you also find that, as the stanzas are divided, it is a Petrachen or Spencerian, or Shakespearian, or Modern sonnet. If you know the form and pattern, there is much you also know about the meaning of "love" in the poem. Is the love Christian, Courtly, lust or what? Love is not the same for everyone nor are forms and patterns. When we break a pattern that we establish, then we note our intentions or brings notice to something: "Wow, you'd never think she would have gone out with a guy like that! You've noticed. The breech draws attention to itself. Look for what the author doesn't say but INDICATES though pattern. That is what Goethe asks us to do.
It's not just a Western thing. Many Eastern forms of poetry rely heavily on the unspoken which is to be observed in the "breach", the "-wa" of haiku, the sudden awareness after having right divergent or conflicting thoughts (yin and yang). In Western poetry, we talk about reading and reading "between the lines". Goethe isn't asking us to see if the poem is a poem or if the experience is a valid experience. After all, there is value in nonsense rhyme, absurdities and satire, simple experimentation too. It's not about knowing traditions or forms or rules; It's about when and how the poet breaks them. Think about the unmarried six-child mother who advertises on a dating service. Under "smoking: she answers "NO WAY". Under drinks she ansers "No way". So upstanding, how did she get six children? Now there's an incipient poem.
I think question two is more about asking how the poet places together the tangible and intangible world: does the blue of the sky act as something more than just "describing what color it is". Things, objects, in pattern suggest: a fat red + on a white background suggests medical aide. Goethe wants us to see how the plan fits together, when is it disrupted; why these things are done. When William Blake says "the four horsemen of instruction" he is playing with religion and education, speaking both of their universality in being recognised and the harm that can come from them - war, famine, plague, death and boredom, intellectual ennui, weltschmerz, and idiocy. So it is that there are two worlds brought to bear on the poem; at least two. Physical and spiritual, rational and irrational. But always at least two levels of reading a poem. Truth is known: there are possibly as many levels for a text as there are readers...at least each of us knows that MY opinion is better than another's. But with a poem, the opinion got by the reader is anchored to the poem.
Almost no one will tell you that Ginsburg's "Howl" is about the horrors of shopping in a packed store during the holiday rush hours. Well, yes. But, definitely, no.
There may be great debate over the answer to "how far were intentions achieved?" The debate itself -- whether a debate inside the reader or between reader and writer or between readers variously skilled in analysis -- the debate itself is evidence of achievement.
We do not truly debate or argue what is inconsequential. The other answer (that one I prefer) is: the more that can be read from the message, the more fully achieved is the message. In poetry, however, the more that can be read from and INTO the message, the more fully achieved is the poem.
Wimsatt and other critics say that Goethe's first question is the "intentional fallacy." Partially, no one of us can know what is ART as opposed to an object. A child may like to fingerpaint with its wastes; liking it doesn't make it art; ask any mother. These critics would like there to be a community of agreement. And there is. That's what different types of poetry are about. Some communities will never accept prose narratives as poetry and some dislike rhymed couplets (or triplets, sestets, what have you). And, finally, there are those who argue that we bring "intentions" and "conclusions" TO the reading before it happens. I intend to read and ENJOY this "poem". But I lay these arguments aside by observing that it is the patterns and breaks created in and for this work from which we readers should draw intentions and judge the accomplishment. It is quite likely that I may intend to read a poem to learn only after reading that there is but one level and no discernable pattern and no break...so that one might have intended a poem but found it not in what was read.
I think academics have lost sight of Goethe, most of us have, simply because his questions are so simple...the base of interpretation; but, when we take time to explore, we will find so much more.
Robert Frost once wrote (in 1917)that it took get time and effort to sound simple. Being open to interpretation (simplicity) is hard work for the poet and the reader.
POETRYREPAIRS 11.07: 084|
DELACROIX, Eugène (1798-1863)