Inventing Meaning

Unfortunately, I’m not very good at “explaining“ my work. I once tried to do this in a question-and-answer period with some students of my friend Richard Howard, after which he told me: “They wanted the key to your poetry, but you presented them with a new set of locks.” That sums up for me my feelings on the subject of “unlocking” my poetry. I’m unable to do so because I feel that my poetry is the explanation. The explanation of what? Of my poetry, whatever that is. As I see it, my thought is both poetry and the attempt to explain that poetry; the two cannot be disentangled. I know this isn’t going to satisfy anybody and will probably be taken as another form of arrogance from an off-putting poet. On occasions when I have tried to discuss the meanings of my poems, I have found that I was inventing plausible-sounding ones which I knew to be untrue. That does seem to me to be something like arrogance. In any case, as a poet who cares very much about having an audience, I’m sorry about the confusion I have involuntarily helped to cause; in the words of W.H. Auden, “If I could tell you, I would let you know.” I’m also mildly distressed at not being able to give a satisfactory account of my work because in certain moods this inability seems like a limit to my powers of invention. After all, if I can invent poetry, why can’t I invent the meaning?

from the first of 6 amazing Norton Lectures, held by John Ashbery, published in: Ashbery, John (2000), Other Traditions, Harvard University Press, a book which is highly recommended.

4 thoughts on “Inventing Meaning

  1. This made me think of a quote J. M. Coetzee here: “I tend to resist invitations to interpret my own fiction. If there were a better, clearer, shorter way of saying what the fiction says, then why not scrap the fiction?”

    • Yep. As a part-time poet with apenchant for the weird metaphor, I get asked about the specific ‘meaning’ of a word or image and people can get all huffy when you can’t provide a clear and direct answer to that. Had a case of that recently.

  2. Like you said the Poetry is the meaning, it doesn’t have to make sense. I know exactly what you mean and understand your predicament, some things are just not explainable.

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