≡ Menu


The great English literary critic, William Empson, wrote a work called 7 Types of Ambiguity in which he promoted Ambiguity as one of the chief indicators of great literary texts, most especially of modern literary texts. Most contemporary poets start to publish when they learn this sort of ambiguity–to not over determine the meaning of a text, to make it somewhat ambiguous. Ah, but there is a great difference between ambiguity and slightness of meaning, poverty of meaning, or out and out lack of it–though most post modern editors would rather have a meaningless poem with poetic turns of phrase, than a clear poem that didn’t sound “poetic”. This just goes to show idiots wait on both sides of the fence.

To be ambiguous means the meaning floats, hovers, resonates, is everywhere present and no where seen. To be confusing means that the poet can not convey either the mood, voice, or cognitive meaning at all, or that neither mood, voice or meaning exist. How much a reader needs in the way of determination varies wildly. A language poet snubs any meaning that isn’t either ironic, dadaist, or so denuded of emotional resonance and voice as to be fey, contingent, hardly there. They have political “reasons” for this–or used to, having to do with authority, but now that thousands of poems have been written as “language” poetry, it has developed its own all pervasive voice. In short, their non-inaugurated I is as much a rigid orthodoxy as that against which they reacted.

Narrative poetry is, by definition, over determined–it has a story to tell. Lyrical poetry is poetry doing its utmost to draw attention to itself as an act of language–heightened speech, the vatic I, the extremes of both ecstasy and precision. All these “kinds” of poetry have their thousand gradations and often bleed into each other, and are better off for being somewhat mongreled. Each of these, done badly, will not achieve the ambiguity Empson extols. Each of these, done supremely well, can achieve all seven types of ambiguity and then some.

At any rate, on countless occasions a student has handed me a poem that did not do what Pessoa claimed a poem must do: make a bridge between the “personal” and the “human.” The personal is all Pessoa defines as endemic only to that particular consciousness. The human is the rough translation of that consciousness into an act of language that is capable of being apprehended and understood by the other. Great poetry not only makes a bridge between the personal and the human, but makes this bridge tentative, almost invisible, so that the reader feels at times as if they are composing the poem out of their own consciousness. This is why language poetry can be faulted in its theory though I believe their goal is commendable): they never take into account to what degree the reader already shares in the authority of the poem, co-creates the inaugurated I of a poem, how a poem, especially one in which the author does not seek too much certainty, can be co-opted by a reader as his or her poem. In short, it isn’t necessary to be non-linear, multi-voiced, non-authoritative. It is only necessary that the author leave enough room in the poem for the reader to step in and co-create it. I once had a student give me a poem in which dogs were bleeding and stars fell onto the bodies of lepers, and a coffin rose from the grave, and opened to reveal a guitar. The student was highly surprised and upset that I didn’t know this was a poem about the death of his beloved father. I realized he’d done the opposite of what Pessoa had said: He’d taken a well known trope (The death of a father) and personalized it to such a degree that no one would ever know unless he told them. This is fine so long as you don’t care that no one gets it. but if you do care, then a little clarity helps.

I am going to share a pretty good poem then by one of my students in the 350 class a poem that uses ambiguity effectively. The poet’s name is Carrisa Ely. Watch what she does.

An Image

She will remember everything
but the color of his harley. She’ll
forget which one it was
in line with all the others; was it red
or was it blue or was it black?
She’s too distraught in
the swirls of his vanilla ice
cream on a cone, it is sugar, it is
sweet the way his tongue follows
the ridges, is caloused hands
turning it.
He does this softly.
Softer than the cracked leather
of his clothes, than the part of his face
around the mouth, softer than the pavement
they both stand on now, a part.

And in this light, he makes her
think again of delicate things– bathing in
claw foot tubs, long cigarettes– God and
the sound walking.

The very end might be a typo. It imght be sound of walking (This is how it was published in arc of a cry), but there is no mistaking the sensual, erotic, sexual charge of this poem, even though the only action is of a “she” watching someone whose bike she can’t remember eating a vanilla ice cream cone. Why do we think the vanilla might just be her? Why do we think, if it isn’t her, she wishes it were? How does she know his hands are calloused, or is this a girl thing– much as men like legs? Note the wonderful mis-use of the word distraught, so much better than caught here: “She’s too caught up… distraught means this action is having an effect on her that is exquisite both in the sense of pleasurable and accute to the point of painful. What we have here is licking, and soft, and leather, and claw foot bath tubs, and long cigarettes, sugar, sweet, etc, etc, etc, but nothing is spelled out except she won’t remember his harley and she will remember everything else. This is ambiguity working to create an erotic charge. In point of fact, all the best erotic poems beat around the bush so to speak. Suggestion is always far more erotic than coming straight at it. We could ask Clarissa Ely if she meant it to be erotic, and she might say not at all, and that would be fine, because a writer is not the only author of the work. After it has been written, there is a different author every time it is read. Someone who wasn’t getting the erotic charge might complain and say: This is vague writing. We don’t even know his or her name, and who cares about some biker eating an ice cream cone? This poem skirts the danger zone. Someone else, someone looking for the sexual in everything, might think this poem too obvious. In short, it can be argued over, and that’s a large part of why it is a poem and not greeting card verse. It is very hard to argue over a hall mark greeting card. A poem might be said to begin when the arguments begin, when it makes us define what we mean by both meaning and poetry. Good job Clarissa.

One of the things that may irritate a post structuralist reader about Auden is that he delights in “knowing” things-even those things which are ugly and disastrous to know. For example, his greatest praise of old masters: “About suffering, the old masters they were never wrong.” Auden likes being right. He likes being elegant. He likes making a point in as clever a way as possible. He even likes his ambiguity to be gin clear. This annoys readers, especially those who come out of the post modernist wood work to feed on endless non-commitments, non-linearity, statements that dissolve and are contradicted or made impotent by the sheer process of deconstructing one’s deconstructions. Stevens claimed that a great disorder is an order (well ahead of chaos theory). Post structuralism with its absolutist hatred of saying anything is, well, to put it in the language of my forbears: fucking boring. Auden, at his worst, is also a bore. He can be pedantic, over bearing, a spewer of opinions, a snob, a writer of high falutin doggerel. At his best, he is the greatest poet to come out of the formalists, and for the same reason Ashbery is probably the greatest poet to come out of the post structuralists: because he is good at saying what he enjoys saying, because he takes great delight in his own utterance for its own sake, because no old bone wearies him if he can find a happy way to chomp on it. This is no small virtue. If a poet is not enjoying his own spew, what damned good is he? Auden’s ability to wrap things up annoys a reader only if that reader is deaf to the sonic joy of Auden cracking wise. The pleasure in Auden is not in what he says, or even in how he says it, but in the sheer pleasure he takes beyond how or why—a pleasure that, in his best poems, becomes a palpable presence throughout. When I want to witness a poet enjoying himself I turn to Ashbery or Auden. With great craft and skill, they sit in their respective sand boxes, and both are infantile in the best sense. At any rate, lets inspect one of Auden’s more famous poems,the imitation ballad, “As I Walked Out One Evening.”

As I walked out one evening,
Walking down Bristol street,
The crowds upon the pavement
were fields of harvest wheat.

And down by the brimming river
I heard a lover sing
Under an arch of the railway:
“Love has no ending.”

We are in traditional ballad country the second Auden writes “As I Walked Out One Evening” (see “The Streets of Laredo”). He is not mocking the structure or form of the ballad (except perhaps the way a lover would tease his beloved); he is reveling in the cliche. He trusts his own ability to have fun with cliché (something Ashbery also trusts). He is using what is called “eights and sixes,” a tetrameter line followed by a trimeter; and, to give it the “feel” of an informal ballad, he is augmenting or truncating the syllable count, dabbling in hypercatalectic, and acatalectic lines (one syllable more or one less). But of all the fun he is having in these first two stanzas, I’m sure nothing pleased him more than the wrench rhyme, worthy of a hip-hop MC of: “sing/ending.” Auden, in the next two stanzas, delights in one of the oldest tricks in the book: adynaton, the lover’s appeal to the impossible, the great brag of the lover plighting his troth:

“I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the River jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street,

“I’ll love you till the ocean
is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky.

“The years shall run like rabbits,
for in my arms I hold
The flower of the ages,
and the first love of the world.’

First, note the vowel rhyme of hold and world. And as for the adynaton,such wonderful boasts no longer exist in our poetry, which shows its sad and tragic “humility” to be far more arrogant and stingy than this delight in the lover’s form of boasting hyperbole. Only in songs does this sort of boast still thrive, for example, when Tom Waits insists: “I’d shoot the moon for you.”

Auden can’t let the lover triumph. Modern nihilism must rear its ugly head, or is it modern? The doom of all young love is a common subject of Latin and Greek, and almost all ancient world poetry. Auden knows the difference between originality and novelty. Novelty can only be interesting once, the first time. Originality is that which is suddenly ancient, and anciently sudden. Orignality has a nomative power, and can be intersting and pleasurable again and again because it manages to touch upon origins as well as news. The worst that can be said for pre post modern poetry is that it lacks the surprise of novelty. The worst that can be said for post modernist poetry is that it opts for novelty and confuses it with originality. I do not believe in cliched tropes. A trope can be tired and hackneyed only if the poet lacks the energy to enliven it. Carpe diem is still trembling in the shadows, waiting to be felt up by a daring poet. At any rate, Auden takes great delight in disillusioning the lover. Some of those stanzas:

“In head aches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
Tomorrow or today.

“The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.

The images here would be surreal if they were not used to a purpose, but they are far from the effect of surreality which is to tweak the unconscious, the intuitive or sensing faculties—the irrational. This is the rational, didactic use of absurdity through thought and feeling to make a point, and the point is pretty much the same point made when Nash informs us that “Helen’s dust” stops up a bung hole: love is doomed and time ravishes even the most powerful passions.

This aint news, but it is a ritual of “giving the bad news.” which we can tell the poet puts all his craft and pleasure toward. A ritual can be beautiful, even pleasurable by dint of the joy and liveliness with which we perform it, and invest our time in it. To say a truth over and over again is to find the ritual that will make that truth, however awful, portable, and somehow, even more than bearable.

What Auden does in the final stanza, after having time destroy the lover’s troth, is return us to the cosmic impersonality of the river:

It was late, late in the evening.
The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming,
And the deep river ran on.

This gives the poem the sufficient modernist chill it needs to be more than merely an imitation of ballads, but the real worth of it lies in Auden never believing for a minute that the tropes can be exhausted. How can one exhaust the ancient fear and fever of the blood, the dread and hopelessness of “I’ll love you forever?” Be careful, students, that your sophistication and stupidity in the dadaist, slacker, cynical, “non-linear” sense does not blind you to the pleasures of true nihilism: yes, I know, I know, and on the thousandth point of knowing, my heart still breaks.