Poetic Meaning and Big Data

A recent response to my last piece on ‘Streak~~~Willing~~~Entourage~~~Artesian’ observed that I am still hanging on to the notion of the poem as a “container of meaning” which has given me something to ponder. I’ve run the usual suspects (Prynne, Hill, Celan, Jones) through the meaning perspective / bias and have come to the conclusion that I do much better with subject matter than I do with meaning and that I can ignore both if the poem is good enough.

I’ve also given some thought to the nature of poetic meaning and I think this is quite tricky not because meaning is primarily in the mind of the beholder but because the expectations that we have about meaning also seem to vary.

I’ll start with paraphrasing some things that poets have said about meaning:

  • Geoffrey Hill has said on different occasions in the last twelve years that the meaning of his poetry is difficult to grasp because he doesn’t want to insult the intelligence of his readers, that life is more complex than his poems can ever be and that he (often) doesn’t know what his poems mean either;
  • Paul Celan insisted to Michael Hamburger that his poems are not ‘hermetic’ and said elsewhere that each poem holds the potential for an encounter with the reader;
  • J H Prynne has said that he is increasingly of the view that working out meaning in poetry is a less and less important component of a ‘successful reading, he has also distanced his work from the postmodern elevation of form at the expense of meaning;
  • John Ashbery has been trying to ignore meaning since about 1960.

As a reader and an occasional practitioner I think that I have the right to remain confused about meaning but not too confused by the entire range of conceits whereby things can stand for other things. I can therefore assert that J H Prynne’s use of ‘forelands’ in ‘Streak~~~~Willing’ is a reference to Ireland’s four provinces rather than some land by the sea. I can also assert that Spenser’s Red Crosse Knight is a stand in for St George and that Una represents the Church. I would also point out that Poem VI in Hill’s ‘Odi Barbare’ stands for a set of national beliefs that we are well rid of.

I don’t look for meaning in a poem to start with and I don’t fret too much that my understanding if fairly coarse-grained. This is probably a reflection of my practice, I start out by knowing what I want to write about but don’t ever get round to working out what the poem might mean because I think I’m more interested in what it does and I agree with Vanessa Place when she says that it’s up to the reader to do the ‘thought work’. This isn’t to say that my work is an open text, nor that it is meaningless but that it does have a real and tangible subject and it tries to do things with that subject.

I can understand what a poem might be about and make a reasonable stab (usually) about what the poet is saying about his or her subject. Hill’s ‘The Triumph of Love’ is essentially about the triumph of lover over the many catastrophes that occurred during the 20th century. I can hazard a guess as to the intent or rationale behind the inclusion of the Max Miller and Frankie Howard quips but these would only be guesses, primarily because I don’t completely believe what Hill has said about them. Olson’s ‘Maximus’ is many things but it is primarily informed by the later philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead which Olson was in favour of- I’m avoiding ‘influenced by’ because it is far too complicated for a Thursday afternnon. Prynne’s ‘Refuse Collection’ is about torture in Iraq which Prynne is against but also has several other ‘dimensions’ which add depth to what could be straightforward polemic.

In terms of my own practice, I find that my approach to meaning is becoming more open-ended in terms of encouraging ‘thought work’ rather than promoting beliefs or opinions. I find that I’m taking an increasing interest in data and how the current explosion of data might be a subject of/for the poem. In a recent article Chris Anderson quotes Peter Norvig, Google’s research director, as saying that the use of big data (commonly defined as “a term applied to data sets whose size is beyond the ability of commonly used software tools to capture, manage, and process the data within a tolerable elapsed time. Big data sizes are a constantly moving target currently ranging from a few dozen terabytes to many petabytes of data in a single data set”) shows that “All models are wrong, and increasingly you can succeed without them.” I started out by working with the conflicting data provided by witness statements and am now trying to broaden this out to interrogate the reliance that we but on numbers. In recent months I have posted Gillian Welch set lists and hourly updates on the progress (or otherwise) of the Large Hadron Collider as well as an audio file based on witness statements provided to the Bloody Sunday Inquiry. I’ve also made use of blog and site stats as poems. As I’m neither for or against Big Data (which would be a bit like being for or against weather) these poems don’t have that kind of meaning but my intention is nevertheless quite specific in that I want people to think about our increasing reliance/dependence on data and whether or not we should always follow where the numbers semm to take us. I also would like some consideration about form and the way that poems are defined and thought about. This poem is a work in progress which depicts the various sources of information that Japanese people used to gather information about radiation levels around Fukishima and beyond together with some extracts of witness statements from the Shipman Inquiry. The links between these two concern Bad Things that happen and the way that people try to make sense of them together with the way in which ‘raw’ (ish) data can be represented and why we might want to do this given the wrongness of all the models and the fact that we can get by without them.

This particular piece may never see the light of day after this but it is proving fruitful to move around something without too much of an end goal in mind, other than to create stuff that hovers on or against the illegible or the inaudible. I have no idea what that might mean either but I do know what it’s about.

So, I don’t think of poems as containers of meaning but I do look for subjects and am still a sucker for the great turn of phrase and/or conceit.

7 responses to “Poetic Meaning and Big Data

  1. I saw this cited in a book on translation I was reading: looks relevant

  2. Lately this question has bothered me. Do you believe that a poem read quickly and for the first time is the same as the same poem read slowly and for a tenth?

  3. (Sorry to write so many separate comments ..) Do you think poems can pretend to say more than they say? Pretend to be about more than they’re about? Be felt to be about more than they’re about?

    I spent part of my degree trying and failing to think about ‘aboutness’ with reference to Crane and Stevens on the one hand, Winters and JV Cunningham on the other. One crux for me was that an a-logic of sound, of ‘euphony’, can partake in the ‘aboutness’ of a poem.

    Kingsley Amis’ philistine essay on Keats is instructive for the terms in which he criticises him. Often, people will reject a poem by saying something that amounts to, ‘It’s meaningless’. To think of poetry as rather meaning-making than meaning-containing has interesting implications for that sort of reaction.

    I think we should think of poems as being able to have the characteristics humans have. Just as humans can be self-deluding, so can poems.

    But generally, I just don’t know. I wish someone would fund me to do a PhD and think about this more.

  4. http://www.godofthemachine.com/?p=446 example of a cunningham poem. he’s very epigrammatic, very ‘paraphrasable’

    • I’m going to reply to all four comments here-

      I’ve now acquired a copy of How Words Mean and have just read the preface, looks Like I need to read the rest- do you want a copy?
      The poem read quickly is intriguing. There are some poems that I’ve read in this way that have stayed the same on subsequent readings, there are others that are changed beyond recognition by slower multiple readings. My own most recent example is Book 5 of The Faerie Queene which I’ve probably read at various speeds 7 or times in the last 15 years. On the last occasion I noticed so much more stuff (themes, perspectives) that I found it difficult to believe that I was reasonably familiar with what seemed like something completely fresh.

      Poems do ‘flutter to deceive’ in that they nearly always effect to be cleverer / wiser than they are. Some flutter frantically to hide the fact that they don’t say very much at all (The Four Quartets, Oraclau, Amoretti etc etc).

      Prynne’s very good on sound / euphony with regard to meaning in his commentary on ‘The Solitary Reaper’ if a little bit obsessive. His ‘mental ears’ essay also sets out some of the territory- would you like a copy?

      I agree with you about poems as people but I’d put more emphasis on what they do to the reader rather than on what they are in terms of characteristics.

      Being paid to think about this stuff would be really good.

      Don’t worry about the number of comments so long as you don’t mind a single response

      Never heard of J V Cunningham, will need to look into this

  5. There are many ways to read, and many ways for poems to, er, do whatever it is they do. For example, and for what it’s worth (something, I think, I have a copy), Quentin Meillassoux just published a close reading of Mallarmé’s Un coup de des … From the publisher’s blurb:

    “A meticulous literary study, a detective story à la Edgar Allan Poe, a treasure hunt worthy of an adventure novel – such are the registers in which will be deciphered the hidden secrets of a poem like no other. Quentin Meillassoux continues his innovative philosophical interrogation of the concepts of chance, contingency, infinity and eternity through a concentrated study of Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem Un Coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard, patiently deciphering its enigmatic meaning on the basis of a dazzlingly simple and lucid insight with regard to ‘the unique Number that cannot be another’.

    The Coup de dés constitutes perhaps the most radical break in the history of modern poetry: the fractured lines spanning the double page; the typographical play borrowed from the poster form; the multiple interpolations disrupting reading. But the intrigue of this poem is still stranger and has always resisted full elucidation. We encounter a shipwreck, and a Master, himself almost submerged, who clasps in his hand the dice that, confronted by the furious waves, he hesitates to throw. The hero expects this throw, if it takes place, to be extraordinarily important: a Number said to be ‘unique’ and which ‘cannot be any other’.

    The decisive point of the investigation proposed by Meillassoux comes with a discovery, unsettling and yet as simple as a child’s game: All the dimensions of the Number, understood progressively, articulate between them but a sole condition – that this Number should ultimately be delivered to us by a secret code, hidden in the Coup de dés, like a key that finally unlocks every one of its poetic devices. Thus is also unveiled the meaning of the siren that emerges for a lightning flash among the debris of the shipwreck: as the living heart of a drama that is still unfolding.

    With this bold new interpretation of Mallarmé’s work, The Number and the Siren offers provocative insights into modernity, poetics, secularism and religion, and opens a new chapter in Meillassoux’s philosophy of radical contingency.”

    • You’re right, there are many, many ways to read and some of this activity is framed by expectation, because of what I’ve already read and think I know then I have a set of expectations about, for example, a poem by Timothy Thornton and a different set for something by Luke Roberts. There’s also the cultural framings- if something has the Cambridge tag then I will approach it in a different way from something that is deemed to be late modern even though there is enormous overlap between these two.
      In this blog I try to document my relationship with aspects of poetry and the poetic and this relationship often takes off in odd directions. At the moment I think I’m concerned about readerly activity and about the difference between what a poem sets out to do and what it can achieve for me as that self-conscious but honourable reader.

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