Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Ideology of Critique 4: Ambiguity

I've been noticing lately how often formalism and the rejection of ambiguity are tied together in poetry criticism. I've gotten into numerous discussions and/or arguments with neo-formalist poets in recent months, poets who have gone so far as to say that what I write should not even be labeled "poetry"—arguments that often reduce to being moral arguments against uncertainty, indeterminacy, ambiguity, and chaos. These are essentially order-vs.-chaos arguments.

I like Michael Moorcock's formulation of the eternal struggle as being about finding a Balance between Law and Chaos, rather than good and evil. I think it is a more useful paradigm, and a larger, more encompassing one, that resists collapsing into simplistic binary reductionism, because a dynamic, living Balance requires elements of both Law and Chaos to be in play, in varying degrees at various times, in order to sustain life. Too much Law, and cultures become stifled in rules and lose all creativity. Too much Chaos, and cultures becomes anarchic in unhealthy ways, creative but directionless, unable to endure or maintain or sustain themselves. Law provides infrastructure, and Chaos provides creative rebelliousness. Both are needed, in dynamic balance. (There is something essentially Taoist about this worldview, which I find appealing, even though it's philosophical origins lie in Western post-Christianity.)

Ambiguity is only inherently evil (bad, wrong, chaotic) if your personal worldview demands order above all other needs. One sometimes detects in neo-formalist poetic criticism the whiff of an unreconstructed Freudian anal-retentive desire for totalitarian control of effect, meaning, and interpretation: as if poetry can only have one meaning. But ambiguity can have other origins than evil intent. There is of course in much bad writing the de facto ambiguity to be found in sloppiness of execution, and poor proofreading. But this form of muddled obscurity is rather different than the ambiguities brought on by subtle and multi-layered thinking.

And life itself is ambiguous at best. (Beware those who are too certain of themselves!) If art is to truly reflect life—rather than be a moral sermon against its weaknesses, or a polemic on what life should be—than art must also share some of life's qualities, such as ambiguity, uncertainty, a lack of clarity and determinacy, and so forth. Art reflects life as much as it inspires it.

One thinks of Virginia Woolf's famous comment against the artificial orderliness of narrative fiction: Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Woolf was dead on target here: life is not at all orderly. Writing about it as though it were is perhaps comforting, but it is also illusory, and a lie.

Because their literary-critical stance was a moral one at root, the neo-formalists I have argued with on those prior occasions immediately leapt to the unfounded conclusion that I, like other free-verse or non-formalist poets, am not interested in artificially imposing order onto chaos, that I must therefore be a champion of Chaos, a demon of anarchy, and a troublemaking nihilist at heart.

Not at all: I have always been a champion of seeking and finding the dynamic, living Balance.

The inability to frame a moral argument as anything but an Us-vs.-The argument is genuinely dangerous because it presupposes that only one camp (guess which) can be right, while all others are wrong. This is a form of fundamentalism, of fanaticism, that can tolerate no disagreement, because acknowledging the possibility of the equal coexistence of disagreements itself opens the door to ambiguity and error. How can you know you're right, if there is any doubt?

Poetry criticism that is moral criticism focuses solely on content, on interpreted meaning, and assumes that a poem has one fixed meaning and intent. There is no possibility that a poem, in this schema, is not prose, not an essay, not an argument, not a piece of clockwork reasoning set into motion to be resolved as a puzzle or an artifact. This sort of literary criticism is myopic in the extreme.

It remains true, and always will, that a great poem resists being paraphrased, and resists being reduced to a simple narrative argument. It is another litmus test of quality, perhaps, that new meanings can continue to be found in the poem, and that one can go ever deeper without ever feeling one has plumbed the ultimate depths. This is not ambiguity or clarity at issue, therefore: it is richness, and resonance, and a lifetime of memory folded into a small, densely-worded space: in other words, a true poem.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I've always had a problem with ambiguity in poetry. I can cope with multiple meanings and subtext but I do like my poems to mean something first and foremost. I fully accept that life is ambiguous but what I look for in art is to shine a light on just a bit of it so that it's clear if only for the length of that poem. Life is always in motion. A poem is a still, something I can examine. If a poem is ambiguous my advice to the poet is, "Use a faster shutter speed, son." (I have no idea what the digital equivalent is).

4:04 AM  
Blogger Christopher Hennessy said...

Thanks for the recent comment on my blog! Cavafy rocks! I think the consensus agrees with you. Simic's review was ho-hum, nothing new.

9:32 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Well, there's more than one flavor of ambiguity, ennit? Ambiguity about ambiguity: meta-ambiguity.

I don't agree with the dogma of Meaning Uber Alles, although I do agree that meaning matters, and that poems that deliberately avoid "meaning" anything fall into several problems right away. This is of course a general problem with a lot of "post-avant" poetry, such as Language Poetry. (Another case of the theory being better than the execution.)

The problem lies, I think, in the area between prose and poetry—and this is often where the criticism of ambiguity seems to come in—which is that prose is about communicating clearly and accurately, and poetry is about nuance, and layered meanings, and resonance, and multiple interpretations. Poetry is about compression and packing as much into as little as possible; while prose is about accuracy, even if it takes a long paragraph to arrive at it.

I write both. I also draw, and make photos, and music, etc. For me, what matters is finding the correct container for the material one wishes to present. Sometimes that's a poem, sometimes it's an essay. The important thing to do is to not confuse the needs and requirements of either of those as essential to ALL writing.

I don't think poems are still. That seems to regard the poem as an inert object. Artwork is not inert objects, not even paintings, because the reader/viewer brings a lot to the process of reading/viewing. I don't like treating artworks as inert, passive, still objects; I don't think that's what they are.

Poetry by its very nature IS ambiguous, IS fluid, IS open to (multiple) interpretation. It is meant to have layers of meaning—which is inherently ambiguous. If you can summarize or paraphrase a poem, then it's probably prose, not poetry. Granted, a lot of what gets labeled "poetry" these days truly is prose in disguise.

Perhaps these are only apparent disagreements around semantic use of terminology. I sense that you mean "ambiguity" to mean "uncertainty" and "unclarity," whereas I think those are very different things.

9:13 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks, Christopher. I appreciate the thoughts. Welcome aboard!

9:14 PM  

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