Tag Archives: postmodernism

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.

Is Charles Olson Postmodern?

I’m not very good with labels because I don’t think that they’re all that helpful and because I get more than a little tired of the adherents of one label pouring scorn on the others. That isn’t to say that I think that postmodernism is simply a phantom, I realise and accept that the culture in which we live started to experience major shocks in the mid-seventies and that Lyotard’s analysis of these shocks was fairly accurate. I also accept that some poetry can be described as post-modern in that it can be seen as a reaction against the worst excesses of modernism. I can see a reasonable case for describing Paul Muldoon as being more post-modern than modernist and many American poets as being thoroughly postmodern.

I’m a huge admirer of Charles Olson’s ‘The Maximus Poems’ and was about to re-read it when I glanced at the back cover.  This was a mistake as part of it reads: “The Maximus Poems is one of the high achievements of of twentieth-century American letters and an essential poem in the postmodern canon.” The obvious response is that this simply isn’t the case, Olson writes firmly within the modernist idiom and all of the features that we come to expect from modernist poetry are fully present in ‘Maximus’. Or does this assertion simply mean that the publishers were so desperate to move a quite expensive book from the shelves that they gave it a tag to make it seem more relevant?

The other problem is that this tome was published in 1983, was there a ‘postmodern canon’ in 1983? Is there one now? How long does a movement or style have to be in existence before it can be said to have a canon?

I have read someone describe ‘Maximus’ as ‘sub-Poundian’ and this was meant as a sneer but I find it much more helpful than the ‘postmodern’ tag. I can make a strong case, if pushed, for Olson as a late modernist poet but I also acknowledge that this term carries such a broad range of connotations as to be almost meaningless.

Jeremy Prynne’s definition of postmodern poetics (in ‘Difficulties in the Translation of “Difficult” Poems’) is quite dismissive: “I don’t think this is equivalent to post-modernist playfulness where meaning is allowed to skim across the surface in a deliberately arbitrary way….” Olson never lets meaning go skimming across the surface in any kind of way. He’s a modernist, as is Prynne.