Some Thoughts on Ambiguity: Mystery, Truth, and Lies (Part 2)
On the occasion of James Arthur’s new book of poems, The Suicide’s Son, he’s written a moving meditation on the role of the ambiguous in poetry, now and in the past. The AGNI blog is proud to present it in two installments, the second below. (If you haven’t read the first, please start there.)
3. The Writer as an Interpreter
In a private letter from 1817, the English poet John Keats famously described an attribute that he called “negative capability” and claimed that it was an essential quality in any great writer. Negative capability, he wrote, is the capacity to be “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”— in other words, the capacity to contemplate a question without striving to reach a conclusive answer, and to write in such a way that the subject’s essential mystery remains intact.
This implies that the best writers do not wholly usurp the interpretive role that properly belongs to the reader. I don’t mean, of course, that writers should or do remain ignorant of their work’s subtext. After all, the writer chooses the words, and is likely to anticipate some of the meanings that readers will find there. In revising, the writer can support and enrich those meanings. But if we accept that the writer’s job is to create an occasion for the reader’s own speculations, then the writer cannot be committed to one interpretation at the expense of all others; the writer has to allow multiple implications.
In my writing and teaching, I’ve found that successful poems rarely begin with the desire to communicate a particular thesis. To the extent that the poet does have a thesis, the process of writing is usually a matter of relinquishing that initial argument and allowing a poem to develop in unanticipated directions. I don’t mean that writers can’t have profound philosophical or even ideological commitments―there are countless examples of great writers whose political or religious convictions were central to their work―but I am saying that during the act of creation, even the most passionately committed writers must be willing to ask questions they can’t definitively answer.
It’s not incidental that image and imagination share a common root, for it is to the imagination—and not to our rational instincts—that sensory language makes its appeal. An image is usually best observed and articulated with precision (any accidental vagueness of syntax or word choice tends to cause an unproductive ambiguity that impedes the reader’s engagement) but the meaning or purpose of an image can be quite open to interpretation, because, in contrast to an allegory or a conceit, an image communicates an impression, not a concept.
Writing within any kind of formal constraint can also allow a poet to defer the question of meaning. As the poet searches for the next rhyme, the next iambic foot or assonant echo, subtext accretes as a matter of course, even if the poet is not consciously steering the poem toward a theme or message. Sometimes, if there’s an apparent disconnect between what the rhythm is saying and what the words are saying, rhythm itself can complicate meaning―as is true, for example, in Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool,” which presents almost as a nursery rhyme, but comes to a sharp end.
For me, one of the pleasures of writing poetry is that even if the poet doesn’t begin with the intention of communicating anything in particular, meaning emerges. And because the poet functions as a curator, deciding what to keep and what to remove, eventually the poem begins to reflect the poet’s concerns, and speaks in what is recognizably the poet’s voice.
When I was an MFA student at the University of Washington, one of my professors, the wonderful Richard Kenney, worked hard to persuade students that they would write better by working against their intentions. To communicate that point, he once divided a graduate seminar into two groups and asked students in the first group to each spend fifteen minutes writing a double abecedarian (a poem whose opening line begins with A and ends with Z, whose second line begins with B and ends with Y . . . and so on, down to the 26th, which begins with Z and ends with A). To students in the second group, Kenney said, “Write something really smart.”
The students who’d been given the job of writing double abecedarians thought they’d received the worse end of the deal, but after fifteen minutes most of the students who’d been asked to write something smart had nothing interesting to present to the class, while the double abecedarians, though mostly unfinished and of course ridiculous in places, all contained surprising moments of vitality and at least a few lines that were rich in implication.
4. Truth and Lies
I think it’s useful to recognize, too, that a poem can be profoundly ambiguous even if that ambiguity lies concealed under straightforward narrative, because any element of style, any narrative strategy, that can be used to prosecute a point also can be used to deflect a point, or to complicate it. Elizabeth Bishop and W. H. Auden both had a genius for writing poems that at first might seem transparent, but whose meaning can shift greatly depending on one’s angle of approach.
Auden’s “The Shield of Achilles” reworks a famous scene in Book 18 of The Iliad: the sea nymph Thetis has asked Hephaestos, the divine smith, to make armor and a shield for her son, the powerful warrior Achilles.
In Homer’s version, Thetis knows that her son will soon die on the battlefield outside Troy, so the point of the commission isn’t to keep Achilles safe; she asks that Hephaestos make a splendid, immortal shield that will bring her son honor and glory before he dies. In The Iliad, Hephaestos decorates the shield with an image of all creation―the Earth, the ocean, the sky, the constellations―all ranging in concentric circles around two human cities, with weddings, the harvest, and dancing set alongside images of violence and conflict, as if to suggest that war is an inevitable, natural part of the great cycle of existence.
Published in 1952, seven years after the end of World War II, Auden’s poem gives two contrasting visions: it describes the images that Thetis, at first referred to only as “she,” expects to see on the shield―scenes of harmony, honor, and sacrifice that echo the images described by Homer―but Auden’s poem also shows the scenes that a reimagined Hephaestos has actually carved onto the shield: brutal images of modern warfare and totalitarianism.
It’s easy to interpret the poem as a realist rejection of the heroic conception of war, and I’m sure that’s how I understood the poem when I first read it. Libation, sacrifice, and “ships upon untamed seas” seem quaint compared with the more recognizable war imagery of sentries, barbed wire, and marching boots. There are no heroes on Auden’s shield, only millions of soldiers marching into battle on the orders of a faceless authority, and, in an apparent allusion to the crucifixion, three figures being tortured while a crowd of people look on and do nothing. Knowing when this poem was written, I find it impossible not to think of the Holocaust, and of the silent complicity of so many, when I read:
A crowd of ordinary decent folk
Watched from without and neither moved nor spoke
As three pale figures were led forth and bound
To three posts driven upright in the ground.
The lines seem equally relevant today as the passivity of tens of millions of Americans makes possible a string of concentration camps along our own southern border.
If we take Auden’s poem as a critique of Homer, then Thetis is naïve, and Hephaestos, like the narrator of Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est,” speaks for the poet himself in saying there is no glory in war, and no honor―only cruelty, suffering, and death.
Look again at the second-to-last stanza, where the description of the shield culminates in the image of a “ragged urchin” throwing a stone at a bird. Look at what we’re told about that child: “That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third, / Were axioms to him, who’d never heard / Of any world where promises were kept / Or one could weep because another wept.” The image seems to say, here is the final cost of war: the child who grows up on the battlefield knows only cruelty, and is cruel to others.
Yet the more I look at the poem, the more I wonder if that child isn’t a proxy for Hephaestos himself. In Greco-Roman mythology, Hephaestos is the one Olympian god who is ugly: he’s described as being deformed; he is rejected by his own mother and is married to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, who regularly cheats on him. In that penultimate stanza, aren’t we also being told something about the “thin-lipped armorer” Hephaestos when we read the lines “That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third, / Were axioms to him, who’d never heard / Of any world where promises were kept / Or one could weep because another wept”?
I think Hephaestos is being psychologized just as much as Thetis. Not only does he live in a world without fidelity or empathy; he’s never heard of a world where those things exist. From his perspective, the image on the shield just shows the natural order of things.
The poem progresses like an argument and has the didactic tone of a parable—but there’s a great uncertainty at its core. There’s even ambiguity in the meter, since the shield is described in rhyme royal (stanzas of iambic pentameter rhyming ABABBCC), but Thetis’s vision is described in a very different meter, pure accentual verse rhyming ABCBDEFE, with approximately three beats per line and a varying number of syllables per line. Really what we’re hearing is a dialogue between two voices, each with its own vision of reality and its own distinct rhythm. (Interestingly, the contemporary images of war are paired with what one might think of as the high, formal meter, while Thetis’s vision of “marble, well-governed cities” and “ritual pieties” takes the much looser and more casual accentual trimeter.)
“The Shield of Achilles” invites us to be seduced by its rhythmic and rhetorical authority, but in the end what does the poem assert? Mainly that the terrible, violent Achilles, who excels in slaughter and warfare, will himself die young. It’s not hard to imagine that the ragged urchin might grow up to be like him. The poem presents as an argument, but I think it’s a question―about what compassion and humanity mean in a world where there are wars and concentration camps.
Having come of age poetically during the rise of Hitler, Franco, and Stalin, Auden knew well that language presents many possibilities for deception―both of others and oneself―and he could be a harsh judge of his own published poems if he later found them to be marred by false simplicities; sometimes he revised and even repudiated his own work long after it had appeared in print. His 1937 poem “Spain,” written in support of the anti-fascist republicans in the Spanish Civil War, ends:
The stars are dead. The animals will not look.
We are left alone with our day, and the time is short, and
History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help nor pardon.
“Spain” was widely praised, but Auden later called the poem’s last two lines “shameful” because they “equate goodness with success.” He wrote, “It would have been bad enough if I had ever held this wicked doctrine, but that I should have stated it simply because it sounded to me rhetorically effective is quite inexcusable.” Auden allowed “Spain” and four other early political poems to appear in a 1964 anthology only on the condition that they were accompanied by a note saying, “Mr. W. H. Auden considers these five poems to be trash which he is ashamed to have written.”
We regularly characterize honesty as active truth-telling (as in the phrase “speaking truth to power”), but for me it’s been useful to recognize that some of the depth and humanity, some of the negative capability, in Auden’s poetry probably derives from his sense of being not only under an obligation to tell the truth, but also under a heavy injunction to avoid telling lies, which is not quite the same thing.
5. Breathing Gold
I’ll wrap up by briefly discussing one of my favorite poems, “Train to Dublin,” written in 1934 by a friend and occasional collaborator of Auden’s, the Northern Irish poet Louis MacNeice.
There is much in “Train to Dublin” that I find mysterious, even after many readings, but there are moments of striking clarity too. Although I’ve characterized figurative language mostly as an agent of ambiguity, it has a countervailing ability to illuminate and clarify experience also.
Look at that first stanza, which describes thoughts coming briefly into focus and then dissipating, to be replaced by others, each mental impression so ephemeral that the speaker cannot hold onto it as he wishes. “I can no more gather my mind up in my fist / Than the shadow of the smoke of this train upon the grass.” First we have the arresting image of someone trying to clutch his mind inside his fist, and then there is an analogy that compares the speaker’s evanescent thoughts not just to shadows or smoke but to “the shadow of the smoke of [the] train upon the grass,” a shadow that is of course constantly changing shape as the train hurtles forward and the smoke blows backwards. The train itself seems to function as a metaphor for the progress of time; nothing is static, so nothing can be grasped.
For me the poem is endlessly suggestive. Train and telephone poles can be seen as modern encroachments on a world of cart-horses, bogs, and Norman stone. This is another kind of progress through time, and the poem hints that the efficiency of our machines has made us less free: “during a tiny portion of our lives we are not in trains, / The idol living for a moment, not muscle-bound / But walking freely through the slanting rain.” But any impulse toward nostalgia is checked again and again by the poet reminding us that time cannot be stopped.
Midway through stanza six, at the exact midpoint of “Train to Dublin,” the narrative takes a dramatic turn: “All over the world,” we are told, “people are toasting the King.” But, the speaker says directly to us, “I will not give you any idol or idea, creed or king, / I give you the incidental things which pass / Outward through space exactly as each was.” From that point, the poem refashions itself as a long list, an offering of apparently inconsequential momentary impressions that have come and gone. Is “Train to Dublin” about poetry? Writing a poem can feel like trying to gather your mind up in your fist, trying to seize some impression that is always flitting out of reach. But we could just as easily decide that “Train to Dublin” is about life, mortality, about looking out at landscapes that quickly slide away and are gone.
In the final stanza, after a catalog of impressions that includes “fuchsia hedges and whitewashed walls . . . the brass / Belt of serene sun upon the lough,” the narrator brings himself up short: “I would like to give you more but I cannot hold / This stuff within my hands and the train goes on” . . . and MacNeice closes the poem with an allusion to the alchemical goals of prolonging life and synthesizing base metals into gold: “I know that there are further syntheses to which, / As you have perhaps, people at last attain / And find that they are rich and breathing gold.”
These lines are evocative and, for me, quite moving, but they remain open to interpretation. Does the poem suggest that a true master might somehow alter the laws of nature, succeeding where the speaker has failed? Or is the implication different: that a true master recognizes the richness of life without needing to clutch it in his grasp? That’s a kind of alchemy too, understanding that the air we breathe doesn’t need to be transmuted, if it is already gold.