Not mean; but be.

There is a poem by Archibald MacLeish called Ars Poetica, usually translated as “The Art of Poetry,”* which ends in the couplet:

A poem should not mean
But be.

Assuming I understand it, I agree with it.  In fact I extend it well beyond poetry.  My primary concern is usually stories, and I would say the same thing, a story should not mean, but be.

This has had a tendency to get push back.  “Haven’t you heard about symbolism and allegory?” I have been asked.  Yes, I have.  But here’s the thing: those are hard to do well.

Before I expand on that, let me say this: a poem will always mean.  A story will always mean.  People are meaning creating machines.  We couldn’t create something meaningless if we tried and even if we did the reader/hearer/viewer/player/experiencer would find their own meaning in it.  But the poem “Ars Poetica” is not about poems but the art of poetry.  It’s addressed to the poets, and so I take the statement “A poem should”, repeated six times in the full poem as a message to the poet about what their priorities should be.

I would expand that the the creators of all fiction, non-fiction as well but that should be obvious since to even be non-fiction it has to be about what actually happened, otherwise it’s just fiction packaged as non-fiction.

So I take it to mean not that the result shouldn’t have meaning, but the meaning shouldn’t be the top priority, instead the being should be.

Which brings us back to symbolism and allegory.

In both the idea is that something stands in for something else.  The stand-in is what’s actually in the poem/work of fiction (and thus the being of the poem), the meaning is what it’s standing in for.  In a well crafted work with symbolism or allegory the stand in is chosen so well that, within the work itself, the stand-in and the thing it stands in for never conflict.

That is hard.

It is hard because the stand-in is not the thing it stands in for, that’s what makes it symbolism or allegory, and so they will not be the same in all situations.  Sometimes there will be a place where stand-in would do X and thing stood in for would do Y.  They are different things and getting different things to act the same way isn’t always easy.

To have well crafted symbolism/allegory you have to choose a stand-in that will act like the thing stood in for in every important situation that comes up in the whole of the work.

The same goes with deeper meaning that doesn’t involve symbolism and allegory.  Maybe you have a message you want to send, but to do it well you need to make sure that the stuff actually in the work, the work’s being, doesn’t conflict with that message.  It can be hard to do.

And since it is hard to make the things line up, the result is that they often don’t.  Meaning goes one way, being goes the other.  The creator has some options:

1) Give up in despair
2) Major rewrite so that when it reaches this point the meaning and the being don’t conflict.  You’ve got to change the being somehow, but in doing so you’ve got to look back at everything that came before to take into account how whatever change you made would have influenced that stuff and rewrite accordingly.
—–Say your allegory requires a character to make a certain decision, but what you’ve written before shows that that character isn’t the sort of person who would make that decision.  You’d have to change the character, which means changing how the character was portrayed before, every action, every interaction, has to be reconsidered, every result from either.  The changes potentially cascade outward in ways that potentially change everything.  It might be easier to to restart from scratch.
3) Keep what has come before unchanged, ignore the intended meaning, and follow from the story/poem/show/movie’s being.  Go with what’s on the page, so to speak, and let it be what it will.  The meaning will take care of itself, even if the result isn’t the meaning you intended.
4) Keep what has come before unchanged, ignore what that tells you about where things are going, and tell the story that the meaning requires.

1) Doesn’t result in a finished work, and need not be considered.

2) If done right, produces a finished product indistinguishable from something where meaning and being never conflicted in the first place.

Three and four are where I see the meaning being conflict.  Three is what you do if you think things should be rather than mean, if you think what is on the page is more important than the intent behind it.  The intended meaning may be mangled, but the story will be internally consistent.  No one needs to act out of character, nothing needs to come out of left field, no established rules need to be broken, so on, so forth.

Four, in my opinion, does not work.  Because it sacrifices what’s already established in favor of what the creator wants to say and that always shows up.  A character suddenly acts out of character, a situation is obviously contrived, a well established rule is broken, things make no sense in context.  The difference between what was supposed to be symbolized and the thing used to symbolize it is such that what was supposed to be an ok relationship becomes an abusive one in the context of the work.  Stuff like that.

But the result is more than just poor art.

The conflict between the meaning “This is just supposed to represent [whatever] so the fact it doesn’t actually make sense when taken literally is ok,” and the being, “Given the actual situation presented This Does Not Make Sense/Is Downright Evil Though You Call It Good,” undermines the meaning. It makes you look at it and think, “Ok, so maybe it meant X, but given that they had to do [atrocious writing] to get there, why in the hell would I accept that their views on X have any value? They had to be dishonest with the reader/viewer to reach that point.”

Choosing meaning over being undermines both.  Choosing being over meaning risks producing a meaning never intended, but it produces better art and it means that whatever meaning is produced will be stronger for staying true to what has come before.  A stronger being creates a stronger meaning.

Art will always mean and be but if forced to choose between the two as an artist, staying true to meaning, or staying true to being, then this is what you should keep in mind, “Art should not mean, but be.”

[This could be considered the almost from scratch reincarnation of a comment at Ana Mardoll’s.]

* Technically if you want to be extremely literal it’s closer to “the poetic art” because the way Latin formed the name of a given art form was “ars” plus adjective, where the translation “of poetry” implies a genitive noun which “Poetica,” is not.  The important thing is it’s about the art form, not the result.  It’s about making poems, not poems, not reading poems.

13 thoughts on “Not mean; but be.

  1. The Slacktiverse November 11, 2012 at 8:23 am

    […] We’ve moved.  First posts since we’ve moved are a welcome here, and an article called “Not mean; but be.“ […]

  2. Timothy (TRiG) November 11, 2012 at 3:51 pm

    I like this. I suppose it also relates to the distinction Tolkein drew between allegory and applicability.

    Also, any work of art may contain puzzles (detective fiction certainly does), but it is not merely a puzzle to be solved, which I suspect is the way some students in English class approach poetry. (One of my English textbooks pointed out that if a poem was just about the “meaning”, the poet would have simply written the meaning down in plain language and saved hirself and us all the bother.)

    TRiG.

  3. christhecynic November 11, 2012 at 8:05 pm

    For the record, I’m just happy that this got a comment other than the automated one saying I linked to it from the blogaround.

    That said, I think I may have read that textbook, no idea what the name would be though. Unless it’s “How does a poem mean?” but that seems unlikely.

    I do think that poetry more than prose can lead to a feeling like it’s some puzzle to be solved because a lot of poetry has a tendency to leave people with a feeling of, “Um, ok, I have no idea what the fuck you’re trying to say,” which leads to an attempt to discover what the fuck the poet is trying to say, which leads to a puzzle solving approach.

    And that breaks everything.

    The Nameless Mod is an example that I will always come back to on this sort of thing. Not because it’s a poem (it very much is not, it’s a video game that does, come to think of it, have a book of poems in it) but because some people approached it the wrong way.

    I approached it in a way that was factually incorrect, I assumed that if there were any references I would get them, which was blatantly false. (There were characters named after real people that I mistakenly assumed to be entirely inventions of the creator) But it worked, because I never assumed there was some deeper esoteric meaning I was missing.

    Other people approached it based on the idea that, since it had characters named after real people, it must be filled to the brim with in jokes, incorrectly identified nearly everything as in jokes, tried to get the non-existent in jokes, failed, and therefore hated it because the jokes that they imagined to be there were jokes they did not understand.

    They were looking for deeper meaning around every corner, when they should have been paying attention to the story right in front of their faces.

  4. storiteller November 11, 2012 at 10:00 pm

    I approached it in a way that was factually incorrect, I assumed that if there were any references I would get them, which was blatantly false. (There were characters named after real people that I mistakenly assumed to be entirely inventions of the creator) But it worked, because I never assumed there was some deeper esoteric meaning I was missing.

    I felt that way about Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. It’s chock-full of references, but they’re all so obscure (Britain/U.S. WWII pop culture, especially specific songs) that I just assumed that even if they were real, I wouldn’t get them anyway. Unfortunately, a lot of his meaning is wrapped up in allusions and metaphors, so I just found myself lost 99% of the time. I can see why people like Pynchon’s work and I’m willing to work to understand literature, but I found that to be the most difficult book I ever read. I consider reading it a personal accomplishment, but I didn’t enjoy it.

  5. Firedrake November 12, 2012 at 4:11 am

    I blame T. S. Eliot – “genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood”, and especially “poets…at present must be difficult”. All too many people read those and decided that obscurity of meaning was a sufficient substitute for literary talent. As with painting and composition, I think it’s best to learn the basics first and then decide what one’s going to dispense with.

  6. christhecynic November 12, 2012 at 9:12 am

    I felt that way about Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. It’s chock-full of references, but they’re all so obscure (Britain/U.S. WWII pop culture, especially specific songs) that I just assumed that even if they were real, I wouldn’t get them anyway. Unfortunately, a lot of his meaning is wrapped up in allusions and metaphors, so I just found myself lost 99% of the time. I can see why people like Pynchon’s work and I’m willing to work to understand literature, but I found that to be the most difficult book I ever read. I consider reading it a personal accomplishment, but I didn’t enjoy it.

    Some things need annotations. I personally believe that Tom Lehrer’s music is fun and funny regardless of if you get the references, but Tom Lehrer Song Lyrics (With Annotations) will definitely give you a deeper understanding. (And I’m glad to see that’s still on the web as at one point the entire service that hosted it shut down.)

  7. MaryKaye November 13, 2012 at 4:27 pm

    Has the author’s name been lost from main-page posts due to some technical issue with the blog software? If so, I suggest signing the posts internally. It’s really confusing to find a lengthy, well-written essay in first person–with no name attached. (If it’s anonymous I would prefer that it said so explicitly.)

    Maybe everyone but me can see the name, in which case, all I can offer is that I’m using Firefox on a Windows XP system.

  8. christhecynic November 13, 2012 at 4:50 pm

    Internally it shows the author’s name automatically, just as Blogger did (with the exception that all imported posts show up as “Slacktiverse Authors” unless manually switched to the correct name) and I assumed, apparently incorrectly, that it would show up externally as well. I guess it doesn’t.

    I wrote this post. I’ll have a look to see if some setting can be switched or if posts just have to manually have a byline added in the body.

  9. Lonespark November 14, 2012 at 7:36 am

    Hmmm. I feel like this is related to the conversation I was having on Facebook about The Chronicles of Narnia and The Tales of Alvin Maker and how the enchantment and storytelling got overwhelmed by Anvils of Theology.

    I kind of feel like poetry is more reliant on cultural context to have its rich meanings understood. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, or accurate… I tend to particularly like religious/mythic poetry, so that’s probably part of it.

  10. kisekileia November 14, 2012 at 8:09 am

    I noticed that as well, MaryKaye.

  11. christhecynic November 14, 2012 at 8:14 am

    It’s definitely not showing up, but it seems like there should be a way to make it show up since if you look at things on the managing posts dashboard side of things everything has an author listed.

    Any wordpress people know a way to make authors show up, or do we just need to start including bylines in the bodies of posts?

  12. christhecynic November 14, 2012 at 9:22 am

    This is a test, a completely random test that should concern no one but myself

  13. anamardoll November 14, 2012 at 11:12 am

    I’ve noticed that, and I’m still looking for a fix. Until I can implement one, we’ll have to sign posts (preferably at the top).

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