On the Perils of Tobacco
Of late I have been listening to, and watching, quite a number of lectures on poetry. As with all things they are rather mixed: from the very good and inspiring, to the rather pointless and soul destroying. The good I define as those not attempting to bash you over the head with a hammer of 'learning', and dealing with what is actually present. And, by extension the bad are those that deal with what the lecturer thinks should be there.
A number of times the question has arisen, what did the poet intend?
Which is an odd question if one thinks about it; without the presence of Mdm Blavatsky, or indeed with the presence of that rather shabby person. Since presumably, the poet is intending to write a poem.
The question becomes more absurd, given that none of these lectures were dealing with 'unknown' poems or poets. The 'classical Monday Pops' if you will. Therefore the text is accepted to be a poem, so the most elementary question is cleared up from the off.
So why bother asking what the poet intended? when you have already accepted that it is a poem.
Curiously the next question is, and I suspect this is the underlying question, what does the poem mean?
Again this is an odd question, as it completely undermines the already established assumption implicit in the statement 'this is a poem'.
Why should a poem mean anything? Oh yes I forgot- these are lectures, and presumably for those attending there is some sort of certification, to prove the lecturer as earnt their wages.
I mention these two points, not specifically to be contrary, but as a lament.
For there are any number of reasons why a poet writes the poem they do. And quite often the intention (in the sense these lecturers use the word) and the meaning are the least important. And worse, they more often than not get in the way.
For it may well be that the poet finds a new word and wishes to explore the meaning of it, or a new rhythm or form, or quite simply wishes to write.
I doubt somehow that Keats went into the garden with the specific intention to write Ode to a Nightingale, and just happened to write it, with all it's intended meaning, and meanings, and then strolled back in, gave a consumptive cough and passed it on to posterity in the hope that some dullard with a book on critical theory would completely ignore the basic truth.
What basic truth? You might ask. And well you might.
I say truth, only in the loosest sense. Not because I wish to engage with the principles of relativism, but because I wish to use the word 'perhaps'.
Perhaps, a poem is not always truthful. Perhaps it is intended to provoke and invoke. Perhaps it is intended to cast a question, or hint at something in a subtle manner. Perhaps it is purely an exercise in musicality. Perhaps the poet and the poem is lying. Perhaps the poet is expressing something in a way that is not allowed within the culture.
Wilfred Owen springs to mind, in this regard. As does Larkin. Who is rather misused and abused on issues of the British/English attitudes towards sex. And yes, Owen is taught in schools as an 'anti-war' poet but I find myself wondering whether this reflects Owen's attitudes, or the attitudes of those who published his work in the 1920's and the way in which it fed into a zeitgeist.
Because equally, thinking back to my schooldays, the topic of Owen's poetry was always set against a single poem of Rupert Brooke - 'if I should die think only this of me/that there will be some corner of a foreign field/ that is forever England.' Which is indoctrinated as the supposedly pro-war poem. With the rather sneering addition that Brooke died before he ever saw battle.
Still, I rather sense myself drifting into the realms 'of mystical Germans/who preach from ten to four', which isn't my intention or my meaning. And, you can take that literally or not.