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Limited Poetic Meaning and the Wordsworthian Legacy 


Jeffrey Side

(First appeared in Pirene’s Fountain in 2009) 



The stimulus behind this essay lies in a question, namely: What is the value of a poem if it does not enable one to identify personally with it to the extent that (to paraphrase Keats): it becomes a wording of one's own thoughts? In other words, why should a person persist in reading a poem if it fails to prompt in their mind images and emotions that specifically are their own? This question, although seemingly naive, if treated seriously, leads to a much wider area of discussion: that of the relationship between the reader and the text. In academic circles, this debate is hardly new and has arguably been the main motivation behind the development of most forms of literary theoryfrom New Criticism to Post-structuralism. This literary discussion was indirectly influenced by ideas that were present in art during the first quarter of the twentieth century; ideas that in turn had been influenced by discoveries in science and technology during that period. 

Before that time the predominant philosophical idea in science was that of positivism, which was formulated by French philosopher Auguste Comte who, as Arthur I. Miller notes in Einstein, Picasso, 'advocated progress toward a science cleansed of theology and metaphysics'. In the 1880s, Ernst Mach expanded this concept by stating that 'only phenomena reducible to sense perceptions (or laboratory data) could be considered physically real'. The resultant implication was that physical objects existed independently of the senses. However, this view began to be seriously challenged with the appearance of new technologies in science. New inventions such as the aeroplane, the motorcar, and wireless telegraphy were significant in changing people's ideas about time and space. The discovery of X rays 'seemed to render inside and outside ambiguous, the opaque became transparent and the distinction between two and three dimensions became blurred'. In mathematics, new geometries could be conceived of as more than three dimensional, with the implication of movement in time and space. 

These new discoveries and their implications had ramifications that were becoming apparent outside of scientific discourse. In painting, the arrival of postimpressionism signalled a reaction against representation and naturalism. The pioneering cinematography of Edward Muybridge and Etienne-Jules with their multiple images 'permitted change with time to be portrayed either on successive frames of film or on a single frame, in addition to depicting different perspectives on serial frames'. The new discoveries in science thus led to new ways of thinking about and practicing art: 

The general line of argumentation among art historians is that the roots of cubism are in Paul Cézanne and primitive art. This view discounts completely how astounding developments in science, mathematics and technology contributed to the very definition of “avant-garde”. It has long been known that the roots of science were never really within science itself. Why then should the roots of the most influential art movement of the twentieth century lie totally within art? 

Artists who have proven to be influential in the art of the twentieth century were not operating in an intellectual and aesthetic vacuum but were actively engaged in discussing and learning about the scientific ideas surrounding them. For instance, Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon included ideas of four-dimensional space that were introduced to him by Maurice Princet, an insurance actuary in Picasso's circle who had an interest in advanced mathematics. Picasso 'listened to his discourses on non-Euclidian geometry and the fourth dimension, which Princet gleaned mostly from Poincaré's widely read book La Science et l'hypothèse'. Princet's discussions fascinated Picasso and significantly changed his thinking. Poincaré had proposed that the fourth dimension be understood as a sequence of scenes, however Picasso drastically modified this by representing 'different views of a scene all at once, simultaneously'. This resulted in an ambiguous visual representation, which was probably one of Picasso's objectives. Indeed, the geometrical representation of spatial simultaneity that Cubism depended upon necessarily produced visual ambiguities. 

Furthermore, the geometrical imagery underlying cubism (largely engendered by mathematics) assisted Picasso in his goal 'of seeking a representation based in conception rather than perception'. This movement away from an empirical representation of phenomena marked a radical shift in the aesthetic of visual art. This aesthetic is described by Thomas Vargish and Delo Mook in Inside Modernism

In Western art before Modernism the principal visual model for representing the world was that of optical similitude or perspective, […]. This model valorized the space of a single-point perspective, […]. Such space is sometimes called “classical” by art historians and sometimes “realist” or “realistic”, […]. As the cubist and other modernist artists were fond of pointing out, […] single-point perspective was not realistic but actually “illusionist,” […]. “Classical perspective” assumes a neutral, homogenous space in which objects exist independently […]. This model of spatial representation employs the same geometric principles as Newtonian spaceit is also neutral, homogenous, and in all ways a suitable medium for Newton's laws of motion, his mechanical worldview. The fundamental goal of the practitioners of linear perspective was the rendering of three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional surface […]. An underlying premise in linear perspective is that light travels in straight lines. This premise is combined with the premisses of Euclidean geometry to formulate rules for the geometric construction of a perspective rendering of a scene as if observed through a window. […] This method of rendering perspective, premised on the validity of Euclidian geometry, may properly be termed “linear” […]. 

Einstein's criticisms of Euclidian geometry and further developments in the field of quantum mechanics helped confirm the validity of the new artistic outlook. As Miller observed: 

Advances in atomic physics, dependent on methods Einstein pioneered for theory building as well as on his relativity theory, led to abstractions in visual imagery and a concomitant break with classical causality. 

He continues: 

A hallmark of classicism in art and science is a visual imagery abstracted from phenomena and objects we have experienced in the daily world. There is no such visual imagery in quantum mechanics or in highly abstract art. Artists and scientist had to seek it anew rather than extrapolate it from the everyday world. Just as it is pointless to stand in front of a Mondrian or Pollock, for instance, and ask what the painting is of, so it's pointless to ask what the electron under quantum mechanics looks like. 

We can find echoes of this in Vargish and Mook's Inside Modernism

Cubism does not pretend to represent the single possible visual conception from a given perspective. Instead each cubist painting proposes to engage the viewer in a specific conception of a contained visual realityin what Herbert Read called 'a construct of the visual imagination.' A cubist work presents itself not as the only valid representation of a given reality, but as one legitimate representation of it. A cubist work of art does not say, 'If you stood here where I specify at the moment I dictate you would see exactly what you see represented in this picture.' Only Realism gets that dogmatic. Instead the cubist work says, 'I represent this plastic reality, this visual conception. My representation is imaginative. It has a right, a right not to demand your passive agreement but to invite your imaginative participation.' 

The transmission of these artistic ideas into poetry was almost certainly due to Picasso's close friend, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. Apollinaire, as Eduardo Kac says, 

sought a Cubist approach to poetry. In certain poems he employed fragments of sounds and images among words scattered on the page to convey the perception of a given scene or moment from a variety of perspectives, paralleling the pictorial strategies of his friends Picasso and Braque. In other works he created compositions of concise visual rhythm and rarified semantical density. 

This practice also contributed to the narrative innovations that were being seen in modernist poetry. This is articulated by Alan Soldofsky in 'Bifurcated Narratives in the Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, C. K. Williams, and Denis Johnson': 

In the context of the defining narratives of high modernismHart Crane's The Bridge, T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, Ezra Pound's Cantos, and William Carlos Williams's Patersonpoets experimented with narrative structure […]. These experimental narratives tended to be disjointed and […] influenced by cubism and other experimental forms of visual art, […]. In the case of Pound and Eliot, the deployment of narrative fragmentation and disintegration works as an organizing strategy, a method of cubist assemblage, particularly in The Cantos and The Waste Land, that compels the reader to construct an emotional coherence out of the text's manifold discontinuities. 

This is particularly apparent in the first two lines of The Waste Land ('April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land'), which combines the perspectives of Geoffrey Chaucer and Walt Whitman. As is well known, “April” alludes to the opening lines of the Prologue of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote 
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote 
And bathed every veyne in swich licour, 
Of which vertu engendred is the flour 


“Lilacs” alludes to Whitman's 'When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd'an elegy for Abraham Lincoln: 

When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom'd, 
And the great star early droop'd in the western sky in the night,
I mourn'dand yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
O ever-returning spring! trinity sure to me you bring;
Lilac blooming perennial, and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love. 


Eliot has used merely two words, “April” and “Lilacs”, to present simultaneously the decay/renewal motifs that are held in tension in Chaucer and Whitman, two poets chronologically separated by centuries but here conjoined. This is only one example of many such that can be found in The Waste Land. Instead of subjecting thoughts to the logic of uninterrupted statement, Eliot's “cubism” allows for a variety of perspectives that (as Kac is quoted above as saying in relation to Apollinaire) 'convey the perception of a given scene or moment from a variety of perspectives'. 

As the twentieth century progressed, this poetic cubism made redundant the need for poetry to describe phenomena the way it once did and marked a diminishment in the expression via poetry of subjective mental states based upon a stable authorial persona. Instead, poetry became verbally inventive and utilised shifts in spatial and temporal perspective, as well as incorporating the fragmented college affects of cubist painting. The sum of these innovations was a hermeneutical plurality that had hitherto not been possible in poetry. This threw open a challenge to readers to become actively engaged in the interpretative process, rather than to be merely passive observers to a work's perceived biographical, autobiographical or descriptive elements. 

Nevertheless, these liberating developments in poetry have found themselves having to compete alongside a more critically approved poetry that looks back to an earlier world-view. This attitude, which stems from some of the central poetic ideas of William Wordsworth, seeks to diminish the autonomy of poetic language and to focus attention upon phenomena. It is based upon the idea that reality exists outside of perception, and that the main function of poetic language is merely the delineation of this reality. By doing this it has served to maintain a poetic aesthetic that is founded entirely upon an appreciation of only one function of poetic language: that of denotation. Furthermore, this poetry is in principle incompatible with what we now know about the psychological mechanisms that underlie the process of reading, a process that recognises the reader's active participation in the interpretation of what is read. 

The negative results of this have been critiques of individual poetic works based solely upon this criterion. We have a situation, today, in which the majority of celebrated poetry is being written because of, and for, this critical sensibilityand the publishing outlets that reflect it. Consequently, the majority of contemporary poetry is no longer about reader identification but about author communication. This poetry is written largely to convey the poet's thoughts and feelings about a specific event, situation or place he or she has experienced. The poet is not necessarily concerned with whether the reader is emotionally affected or not by the poem, as long as he or she understands clearly the “message” the poet is trying to convey. This message may consist of some “important” insight gained from an experience, or it could be (as is most often the case) a commonplace observation about contemporary life. Such poetry is, as I suggested, a legacy of Wordsworth's poetic aesthetic. 

It is becoming increasingly recognized that one of the most dominant aspects of Wordsworth's influence is that which derives from the philosophical empiricism upon which part of his poetic aesthetic was based. Wordsworth used this empiricism mainly as a rationale to champion a more descriptive and discursive poetry than arguably had been formerly the case. It can be demonstrated that Wordsworth's poetry relies too consistently upon a descriptive realist aesthetic derived from empiricist beliefs about subject/object relationships. As a result of this, it can be observed that Wordsworth's poetic theory and practice are limiting both as a rationale for the creative impulse and as a critical methodology. This theory operates within the context of an assumed authorial persona, an individual consciousness, remarking upon an external reality. It assumes that the reader's role in the cognitive process of poetic appreciation is essentially passive, a mere witnessing to the experiences and perceptions of the authorial persona. Consequently, readers are excluded from any participation in the creation of a meaning that has individual significance for them, and with which they can fully empathise. This lack of a plurality of meanings limits poetry's emotional effect, as well as greatly reducing the possibilities for varied exegetical analysis. 

The diminishment in poetry volume sales over the past 50 or so years is, arguably, due to the increasingly empiricist mode of writing that has found favour during this period. To obstruct the ambiguity inherent in language is to obviate the natural instincts of human beings to make sense of themselves and their experiences. If one looks at the poetry of children and the so-called “bad” poetry of adults, for instance, one finds it replete with imprecision. Contemporary poetry fails to sell in vast numbers because it leaves little to the imagination and disallows a personal interpretative interaction with the text. Its prose-like quality, which is excessively similar to prose fiction, leaves the reading public faced with a choice: to read poetry, or to read a novel. They generally opt for the latter because they perceive it as more value for money. 

Ideally, each reader should be permitted the fundamental privilege of formulating a meaning which would (for that reader) be the quintessence of the poem's significance. The poem, in and of itself, is of little consequence other than as a cipher for this practice to occur. The words and images of a poem should be looked upon as devices that enable readers to recall their own experiences, reflect present circumstances, and anticipate future desires. Each word should have the potential to enable the reader to derive personal significance from it. By doing this, the reader becomes, in effect, the composer of the poem, and the definer of its limits. It is of minor importance whether the commonly received meaning of the poem is discerned by the reader or not, as the ultimate aim of such a personal response is to enhance the enjoyment value of the work for that reader alone. What the poem is “meant” to mean from an authorial standpoint should not be of paramount concern for readers wishing to gain satisfaction and enjoyment from the work. Such an approach to reading poetry, if widely understood and accepted, could possibly restore poetry to its status as a significant art form.




copyright © Jeffrey Side


Jeffrey Side has had poetry published in various magazines such as Poetry Salzburg Review, and on poetry websites such as Underground Window, A Little Poetry, Poethia, Nthposition, Eratio, Pirene’s Fountain, Fieralingue, Moria, Ancient Heart, Blazevox, Lily, Big Bridge, Jacket, Textimagepoem, Apochryphaltext, 9th St. Laboratories, P. F. S. Post, Great Works, Hutt, The Dande Review, Poetry Bay and Dusie.


He has reviewed poetry for Jacket, Eyewear, The Colorado Review, New Hope International, Stride, Acumen and Shearsman. From 1996 to 2000 he was the deputy editor of The Argotist magazine.


His publications include, Carrier of the Seed, Distorted Reflections, Slimvol, Collected Poetry Reviews 2004-2013, Cyclones in High Northern Latitudes (with Jake Berry) and Outside Voices: An Email Correspondence (with Jake Berry), available as a free ebook here.