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February 13, 2012


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I remember studying under a fairly well known Canadian Concrete poet-critic who had some fairly amazing ideas about the unintentionality found in early Parisian modernist verse libre, who asked me if I had ever thought about why Plato wrote what he wrote; and I will never forget a stunning revelation that came all at once to me with such force that I nearly dropped my biro: That Plato had actually written what he did because he was so consumed with ideas about earlier theoretical existentialism, that he felt he had to.

This got me thinking of the connections between Greek philosophy and my (then) latest essay, for an undergraduate literary magazine, about a character in a boardgame I sometimes played with my best friend at university -- before she tragically passed away from suicide induced by the terminal boredom brought on from three years listening to bland poetry professors waffling disconntected and hugely forgettable 'ideas' they'd cobble together over tea and biscuits in the strerile and detatched environment of their staffroom -- and I found myself getting very carried away with trying to link the revelation about Plato writing what he did because he felt he had to, with the character from the boardgame I used to play with my university freind prior to their death - a character called Mogodon - and then wrote the essay and got very positive feedback from my freinds who read the magazine.

The basic idea was that because Plato wrote what he did, and because Mogodron, after vanquishing Marlginay, a Vampire in the boardgame, uttered the unforgettable statement 'Yosinda be yummy'; so too I had to find some meaning in my life as an artist with something of very great import to share with a handful of likeminded lovers of stuff like the stuff I like.

It was only then that I made the connection between what my father had told me, as a young child, about my toy collection being a precious gift handed down from his parents to him when a child, with what my friend at primary school used to hear at night when listening to his own parents argue in the room directly below his bedroom. Writing about it now, finding the poetry in it; it's because of this that I know understand much of what a lot of people are going on about, and hopefully why I have a few loyal readers who are with me on it.

Michael -- Great post. Intentional fallacy has been chewing on me like mice for a while now. I definitely believe there are bunches of poets (largely in the under-45 set at present, but so many outliers (outliars?)) who use this whole question as an excuse for being obtuse, sloppy or HAVING no intention other than to clog journals. I've been in many a workshop where some willowy hipster poetess with a heavily feathered cap is asked "what does that mean?" and responds with a cheshire cat smile "What does it mean to you?"

The phenomenon of discovered meanings in one's own poem (whether self- or other-discovered) is trickier and more numinous. As a poet who tends to wear structure and narative / lyric integrity like a suit of chain mail, I've certainly had experiences where I've had to say "no, that is emphatically not what I meant, and if that is what you are reading, one of us isn't doing their job." But more often, the experience you describe, either once the poem's written or when someone reads it, of finding something you didn't intend but the poem obviously DID. I don't care how logical and concrete and diligent and lopp-closing and INTENTION-driven a writer is: there are times, and I, no new-age metaphysician in most things, would absolutely argue that there must be -- when part of the work of making poems entails the opening of doors into a personal or even a collective unconscious which is later reflected back to us in the poem's patterns.

The kicker is that if you enjoy even modest success, by which I mean people read your work outside of classroom situations whee you're there to explicate or defend (or refuse to with a sweet little blinky-eyed passive-aggressive simper, no I don't have issues, why?) -- you ain't gonna be there to control what people read in what you wrote. Duh. And people will bring what they bring.

But "as if" is inherently a figurative construct in any event. It's the language of the simile. And what does that mean?

"Well, What do YOU think it means?"

xo, amy

Hi guys,

I'd love to see an example from Michael or Amy, or anyone, of meaning in one of their poems that was not intended.

Thomas Brady

Jack Spicer here: don't you know the aliens wrote those verses in the sand?

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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Ringfinger was nervous
Pinky terrified
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that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.



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