Friday, November 13, 2009
Most of us are familiar with the 20th century literary concept, the Biographical Fallacy, a notion Auden scholar John R. Boly says frees the meaning contained in an author's poems “from being determined by a particular set of events in that author’s life”. It’s a simple idea that has enormous implications for poets and writers, whose resistance to the suggestion that they might have written autobiographically in a poem or novel is equally familiar. (A case in point: that slightly defensive reaction whenever CBC’s Eleanor Wachtel asks a writer how much of their personal life has gone into a novel or poem.)
For me the Biographical Fallacy took on extra meaning this week when I asked the obvious question: If the events that have formed my life can have no bearing upon the meaning contained in my poems, if I lack the freedom to truly create, how then can meaning occur? The answer would seem to rest in that magical combination of the fiercely independent author working in tandem with the endless variety and freedom contained within language itself. Unfortunately, this answer to the question of meaning in poems is not always readily apparent in poems themselves, particularly in their tone, and in something related to tone, the poet’s sense of power and place in the world.
Two poems helped crystallize this for me, one a familiar poem in the modernist tradition; the other a very old poem from 12th century AD:
To me there is much comfort in the thought
That all our agonies can alter nought,
Our lives are written to their latest word,
We but repeat a lesson He hath taught.
- From The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám
Is it solely for metaphorical purposes that Richard Le Gallienne’s translation casts the argument against freedom in terms of the written word? Perhaps. It might suggest something else, though: that our words, like our actions, are themselves pre-determined, shaped by forces outside their control and powerless to affect direct change themselves. That suggestion gains added force when you consider how singularly helpless words have been during the last century at intercepting and stopping the very worst that human beings can do to one another.
It may also account for that low-grade depression readers encounter in so many contemporary poets. When so much of the world is galvanized by Olympic Torch Relays, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the simple desire to find a job, poets are consigned to the sidelines, immobilized by the meaninglessness and paucity of human activity - and worse, the inability of words to change anything.
Is it any wonder, then, that we are simultaneously confronted by the diminishment in importance of statement in poetic art? Evidence abounds that the preoccupation with “saying something significant” as an outcome of art has been replaced by our preoccupation with process and a fixation upon the materials of art (e.g. typography in poetry; shape and surface texture in painting; space in sculpture). More significantly, for many poets the End of Statement has become an article of faith that has quietly mutated into codified postures of demoralization and faithlessness, reflected not just in the tone of balefulness that infects so much bad poetry, but in the underlying tone of resignation that effects even very good poetry:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
Williams' famous poem helps us understand what we turn to when philosophic statement and the discursive deployment of words no longer work for us; "So much depends/upon" all that we have left: clear, hard images, captured in a way that acknowledges the distance between ourselves and the world (hence that space between stanzas 1 and 2) and our incapacity to shape our destinies. All of it subsumed within the sheer delight of the images themselves.
Is that sufficient answer to the question of meaning in poetry? For now, it seems to be.
Clarification: In my last blog I said the federal government proposes cutting funding to Canadian magazines with a circulation of fewer than 5,000. While the effect may be the same, it requires some clarification. To that end, here is Malahat Review editor John Barton:
“It’s not that the government is cutting funding (they are merging the Publications Assistance Program and Canada Magazine Fund into a single entity called the Canada Periodical Fund), but are setting minimum circulation at 5000 paid copies per year, a mark most literary and arts magazines are below---often well below. Also, at the other end of the spectrum, they are capping grants at $1.5 million. Currently, MacLean’s and Chatelaine, for example, receive about $2 million plus through PAP, so they will lose a substantial amount of money that they formerly received to underwrite part of their postal costs in Canada. What the exact programs the CPF will offer are not known yet.
Magazines like the Malahat will lose 10-12% of our budget next year. Along with the cuts to our BC Arts Council grant---if we were to lose 90% of it, we’d be down to $700----we will be down 15% to 17%.
I don’t see either government changing its approach, so my feeling is that those who love the arts in this country---both practitioners (artists, writers, etc) and clientele (readers, audience, etc)---have to find it in themselves to support us materially by subscribing (magazines, theatre, memberships in art galleries). The message from government, especially in the case of the Harper government, is: before we fund you, prove you have an audience.
Note that our Canada Council funding is unaffected. It’s an independent body, and not part of Canadian Heritage (where PAP and CMF reside), though it reports to Parliament through the Minister of Canadian Heritage.”
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