Sunday, January 05, 2014

Mysteries of poems

I don't normally comment on other people's poems on this blog, and I doubt that this post will be the beginning of a trend....  However, I came across a poem the other day by a poet previously unknown to me, Joan Naviyuk Kane, and I made some notes on Evernote about it. The poem appealed in some way I couldn't put my finger on initially, and yet strictly speaking I couldn't make much sense of it.  I've written a few poems of my own that didn't make much 'sense' either, because basically they were collage poems, or 'found' poems (words taken from somewhere else and 'formed' into a poem) - examples: Twitter Collage Poem, Zen Poem, and Evernote Collage 2.  So I can't in any way criticize other poets who write in a surreal sort of way. However, I thought I'd review the notes I wrote and add them here, as a way of reflecting further on the poem. 

Here's the poem, which Ms Kane has very kindly given me permission to reproduce. 

Mysteries of Light
Joan Naviyuk Kane
Loosen the ropes.
Seven lances in her heart put forth blossoms.

Beneath a torrent, refuge—
As a little child with a medallion of chased gold

Aboard a ship, with birds
About her shoulder and a magpie on her hand.

An axe lodged in the roof,
A wolf whose mouth will proclaim.

One breast on a plate. Stone in hand.
Red egg, wool, sometimes a wound in her forehead.

Called to the ditches alongside the mine roads,
A continuation of things we do wrong.

Already, coming back to it, I see I've misread something in it. This is the advantage of taking time over a poem. You begin to see what the writer actually said rather than what you think they said. This is why it's good to memorize poems: you get behind the apparent facade and discover more of the house inside.

Nevertheless, be aware that these notes are fairly bitsy, hardly what you'd call a concerted critical opinion. 

Firstly, a poem like this leaves the readers to do most of the work, leaves them to find meanings and connections. This isn't to say there isn't any meaning intended by the author, just that the author hasn't plainly set the meaning out for the reader to see. It's a bit like a cryptic crossword: you have to learn to read the clues the way the compiler intended them before you can begin to work out the answer.

So what do readers do with a poem like this? If they're already of a poetic bent, I guess they get on and try to discover the meaning(s), or, maybe more likely, find the meaning slipping away from them just when they think they've grasped it!  If the reader is a person struggling with poetry, then this sort of poem may put them off...unless they happen to 'get' something about it. I guess this is part of what happens when we collide with a poem, especially a poem like this where everything seems to be set in place for a reason yet the reason isn't obvious. Even the title appears to have no connection to the rest of the poem. 

The first stanza has a kind of sense, but apart from the assonance of 'loosen' and 'blossoms' what do the two lines have to do with each other? Does the reader decide? Are there clues from the author?  Is the woman with the heart someone who appears elsewhere in the poem?

The second stanza starts with a seeming paradox, a kind of variation on the calm inside the storm. But while that latter phrase speaks of a real thing, this torrent/refuge idea takes a bit of thinking about. Under what torrent could you find a refuge? I guess a refuge from other circumstances, or other troubles. 

When I re-read the poem again just now, I realised the fourth line moves on into the fifth and sixth. I don't know that I'd ever heard the expression 'chased gold' until now. Seemingly it means this: Chased gold is a sheet of gold on which patterns have been cut. If artistic and beautiful designs are cut or indented on metals like gold or silver, they are chased.

Okay, that's a clearer picture, though how does the child with the medallion aboard ship, amongst birds, connect to the refuge beneath the torrent?  This is where a proper critic would probably bring up all sorts of references that I'm missing, and I would go, Oh. That's what that phrase refers to. The proper critic, however, is apparently on annual leave, and hasn't taken his cellphone or laptop, so I'll have to rely on my own limited thoughts here.

Apart from the meaning of the third stanza, there's a nice assonance between the phrases 'aboard the ship' and 'about her shoulder.'  There's a surreal feel to this picture, as though suddenly Salvador Dali or Magritte had climbed up the rope ladder into the poem and hung up some of their typical surrealist props. Birds about the shoulders almost brings in a Madonna-like picture, but who does the magpie belong to?

Initially, in relation to the next stanza, I wrote: an axe lodged in a roof is a phrase that has a sense of violence about it, a contrast to the previous birds imagery. But why does the wolf have a mouth that will proclaim, and anyway, who invited him in?  Could the axe and the wolf be indicative in any way of the 'torrent' that the woman needs to take refuge from?  

Okay, the one breast on a plate in the fifth stanza is an interesting image; if a reality, then where's the other breast? (Forgive me if this sounds facetious.) Is the woman leaning on the table, one breast on the plate, one on something else? Is she so bound up in her thoughts she doesn't realise quite where she's placed herself?

Again these next lines are what I wrote as my first can see I'm not quite drowning, but the life jacket doesn't seem to be properly in place either. Stone in hand? This is the first of several concrete images that seem not to have any connection - 'red egg?' - what's a red egg? - red inside an egg might signify something to do with insemination, conception, etc, but 'wool?' - that seems very random, except for the way it's echoed by 'wound.' Stone, hand, wound, forehead, all have connecting consonants, but...what's their connecting meaning? 

And lastly: who's called? To do what? And how is this a continuation of anything, let alone what we do wrong?  

You can see that I'm plainly no literary/poetic critic.  I'm plugging along here pretending that I'm getting somewhere but feeling more than a little lost.  This isn't Ms Kane's fault in the slightest. While I've quibbled in the past about poems such as this that seem random (to me), I've slowly, over the years, mostly found ways to get to grips with them. That doesn't mean to say I've got to grips with them in the same way the poet intended (!) but perhaps that isn't the point. An abstract painting may speak differently to different people, and it's unlikely the artist is going to complain. An art critic may find all sorts of things in that painting that the average Joe won't necessarily see - or maybe even want to see. As long as the work speaks in some measure to them, that should be enough for the artist. For composers it's even worse/better: the majority of serious compositions have no programme, no intention except to be music. I guess there are some composers who set out to write something that says this at this point and that at that. My suspicion is that many composers 'merely' write, and let the music do its own thing with its audience. Which it will.

One last thought. It sometimes helps to know something about the author of a poem, about their circumstances, what their passions are. The link under Ms Kane's name leads to an interview with her. It may well help in the reading of this poem.
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