The poem is more than the text

Published April 14, 2018, 4:05 PM

by manilabulletin_admin

By Cirilo F Bautista


A common question I am usually asked is—“Where does the meaning of a poem reside?” An irrelevant question at first glance, but it really strikes at the heart of the matter. For the text, the linguistic composition, as written down, is not the primary container of the meaning. Where else can it be, then?

The various definitions of poetry, such as Frost’s “Poetry is the only possible way of saying one thing and meaning another,” Engle’s “Poetry is language raised to the nth degree,” Moore’s “Poetry is stanzaic,” provide us with answers to the question. They all converge on the idea that imaginative language has a vital part in inscribing in the text the poem’s meaning. Since poetry is not prosaic, that is, metaphorical, it relies on a heightened use of language without changing the rules of that language. “If a poet is… to write good poetry at all,” said Michael Roberts, “he must charge each word to its maximum value. It must appeal concurrently to all the various levels of evocation and interpretation…”

To get that “maximum value,” the poet confers meta-meanings on words through semantic relationships determined by poetic techniques. The figures of speech, for instance, are one specific system by which evocative and interpretative levels are implied in the text. In Eliot’s “when the evening is spread out against the sky/Like a patient etherized upon a table,” we are supposed to see what the text does not show—the evening’s dreariness, its unexciting, monotonous atmosphere. The simile conveys the aura that the poet wants to evoke so that the poem’s narrative elements and argument can have a logical basis.

GOING BEYOND THE TEXT from left: T.S. Eliot; Robert Frost; and Ted Highes
GOING BEYOND THE TEXT from left: T.S. Eliot; Robert Frost; and Ted Highes

When the reader masters this evocative and interpretative method, he will discover the harmony between the “said” and the “unsaid,” the text and the non-text, as it were, existing in the same discourse, then he will understand Moore’s definition—the toads and the garden will now achieve the same reality of existence. Ted Hughes’ contemplation of time’s agelessness as manifested in a place, in the poem Pibroch, presents a new way of looking at the universe. He describes the stones, the wind, the sea, and the vast nothingness of the place as rigid conditions of that agelessness, and in the last two stanzas brings the text to a convincing conclusion:

Drinking the sea and eating the rock,

A tree struggles to make leaves—

An old woman fallen from space

Unprepared for these conditions.

She hangs on, because her mind’s gone completely.

Minute after minute, aeon after aeon,

Nothing lets up of develops. And this is neither a bad variant nor a tryout.

This is where the staring angels go through

The meaning of a poem, then, can often be found outside the poem—extratextual—but is valid only when supported by the poem—textual integrity. The text as it is, then, functions as the unalterable foundation of the extratextuality and is the sole referee of that meaning. The expression, “reading between the lines,” has a similar meaning. What we have between the lines is nothing, or, if you like, a space, which is still nothing, in itself, it has no significance, but when taken properly in conjunction with the text, the unalterable foundation, when read metaphorically, it assumes a meaning that is of prime relevance to the poem. The spaces in the poem are the residences of the extratextual meanings of the poem. The spaces are what we really read when we read the poem, even though we should not read them without reading the poem itself. As Roberts added, “Words do something more than call up ideas and emotions out of a lumber-room: they call them up, but they never replace them exactly where they were. A good descriptive poem may enable us to be articulate, to perceive more clearly, and to distinguish more readily between sensitive and sentimental observation, than before. But a poem may do more than that: even though we may not accept a poet’s explicit doctrine, it may change the configuration of the mind and alter our responses to certain situations: it may harmonize conflicting emotions just as a good piece of reasoning may show the fallacy of an apparent contradiction in logic.”

When a poet articulates an idea or expressed an emotion, he uses more than one level of linguistic discourse. Without forsaking the rules of language, he creates within those rules a new set of rules with which to intensify, to raise to the nth degree, to make stanzaic, his utterance. That is the only way for poetry. That is the only direction of a good poem. The meaning of the poem is not the meaning that the reader gives it, but the meaning that the reader extrapolates from an understanding of the poem’s text and extratext. In this sense, the enjoyment of poetry is the product of the aesthetic collaboration between poet and reader.


EDITOR’S NOTE: This was first published in the author’s column Breaking Signs, Philippine Panorama, Nov. 17, 1996