Saturday, August 30, 2008

Guest Blogger: T.M. Gottl

Poem Without Meaning

My future sister-in-law told me that her writing professor assigned her class to "write a poem that has no meaning." I thought that assignment sounded more like a philosophical debate for a lit theory class than a writing assignment.

Before someone could even start writing such an impossible assignment, he'd need to define "meaning." Does he just not want his students to try to write a metaphoric poem? Does he want a poem that's completely literal with none of those hidden layers of meaning? Or does he just want random words written on the page in such an order that they won't make sense? My initial reaction was to tell her to turn in a blank sheet of paper. After all, by writing any words on the page, wouldn't she be giving meaning to something? The words on the page are indicators pointing to other ideas, objects, and abstract concepts, thereby imbued with meaning. Writing anything at all would end up meaning something, even if that something didn't happen to be terribly insightful or poignant.

I don't think writing a poem without meaning can be done. And if someone claims to have written one, I don't think it could really be a poem.

Personally, I love playing the game called "What does that mean?" My favorite responses to that question are, "I don't know," and "What do you think it means?"

Is that fair? Probably not.
But is it true? I think so.

Without trying to delve into too much more lit theory, I think the readers' interaction and the meaning that they give to a piece matter more than anything I ever intended while writing it. From that point of view, an author could never write a poem without meaning unless no one ever read it.

I might be a bad poet for admitting this, but I often write without intent. I don't frequently plan where the poem will begin and end ahead of time, and often I write my best work in that way. Yes, there's always an editing and revision process, but even so, the finished product won't always "make sense" to me. But then I will read that piece at an open mic or a show, and someone will explain how he or she connected to the poem in a way that I never understood before.

To whom should the poem have no meaning? The author or the reader? Maybe this is a better question to be asking.

Since a professor probably won't tolerate the student who will hand in a blank sheet of paper (or the student who will write a poem without turning it in, thereby depriving it of its meaning), it almost sounds like he's instructing his students to purposely write bad poems.

I want to give this professor the benefit of the doubt and hope that he only wanted to make a point, using this as an exercise to illustrate certain theory concepts. But even so, I think that's a poor way of making a point.

In an art form so dedicated to the use of precise language, to ensuring that every word, punctuation mark, and line break means something and contributes to the piece as a whole, why would anyone purposely instruct his students to write something "meaningless"?

T.M. Göttl is a winner in the poetry category for the 2007 Wayne College Regional Writing Awards. The 2002-2003 edition of the literary magazine, The Mill, published some of her work, and she has performed at readings such as Wayne College’s Annual Poetry, Prose, and Acoustical Jam, the Erewhon Poetry Society, Deep Cleveland Poetry, and Gallery 324.


smith said...

i wrote a poem once by taking all the words from one page of my journal that lay withing a couple scribbled lines. the poem literally had no meaning. but then i gave it a title which may (or may not) have pulled my meaningless poem into meaning. you decide:


Into egg ovular
cut glass silence
rusted circle
metal round
eye yellow
not there
stone heart
boomerang would
underbelly red
with watercolor
woodsperm soft

Jesus Crisis said...

Excellent blog, Theresa! You've stated so many points so well, that I feel I have little to add except this: all my best work was started without intention - though an intention might have evolved as I was writing it, and perhaps another as I was rewriting it. My good pieces that started with intention usually require more editing and loosening and refining to become better poems. Lennon said "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." I think the same could be said of a poem. Intention is good when the poet is refining his work. But at a piece's genesis, I think intention can impede inspiration.

As far as Smith's poem, I think it has meaning even without the title - although seeing the title helps focus (or narrow or define) the meaning.

Geoffrey A. Landis said...

Amusing exercise. There could be dozens of things that the professor has in mind in asking students for a poem with no meaning. He (you said he-- is it a he?) could be trying to start up a conversation on the meaning of meaning, for example, or just trying to get the students to start thinking about that. Or he could simple be trying to get students to think about form, the shapes and sounds and patterns of words, and wants them to concentrate on that and not get tangled up with what they mean.

Certainly nonsense verse in English has a long and honorable history.

Rap dap tiddle, nop dop nee
Crinkletry triddle, tapple rick cee
Tipple madipply, prinkle mick rence:
this verse doesn't make any sense

e b bortz said...

some poets benefit from
classes workshops exercises

others become homogenized
even dishonest
within structure

when in doubt
maybe it's better
to subvert the paradigm
meaningful meaningless
or otherwise

sara holbrook said...

Poems with no meaning? Not so sure about benefits in that exercise, but it's definitely a good exercise to ask students to write a "bad poem" and then to use the pieces as platforms for diving into discussion. And I agree with you JC, the writing of poetry is never a straight line from intent to finished product. Carrying intent too far into the writing process can weigh the poem down with all kinds of didactic drivel.

Dianne said...

I totally agree with JC and Sara: if you begin with intent, you've already lost something of the art of poetry-- something of the spark of creation that begs to be nurtured and developed. Intent drives the poem along as something to be "worked on", not something to be loved and encouraged to grow.
It would seem that the instructor gave the "meaningless" poems meaning just by calling them "meaningless" to begin with.

pottygok said...

Just a thought, to play devil's advocate here:

I know that, when I have taught creative writing classes or led workshops, especially to undergrad and high school age students, that many of them try to write large, profound poems with BIG ideas. These poems tend to be less successful, usually because they use a lot of meaningless abstractions to seem "deep" or "obscure".

Perhaps the instructor in this case was trying to get them to break that mold and write a poem that, for them, was meaningless because it wasn't big, profound, etc. and get them to realize that even the most "meaningless" ideas have depth and substance. He could also be trying to generate a discussion on "meaning" in poetry, thinking back to MacLeish's "A poem should not mean, but be".

I'm also thinking about some of Billy Collins. Collins has actually said that he writes poems "about nothing". Some of them come out as jokes, but some actually end up being sort of profound and introspective, causing the reader to pause a moment and think. Perhaps this was the goal the teacher in question was shooting for.

I'd be interested in hearing the follow up on this assignment, and finding out where the teacher took said assignment.

Jesus Crisis said...

I'm glad you brought up MacLeish's "Ars Poetica," Josh - adds an interesting new dimension to this discussion. I can't help recalling that Czesław Miłosz wrote a poem called "Ars Poetica?" - turning the title into a question.


The poet doesn't invent. He listens. ~Jean Cocteau