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Research Of The Meaning Of Poetry As Created By Reader And Writer

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‘Meaning’ is a word of almost indefinite use when discussing poetry. Poetry is a form, or range of forms which present a platform for writers and readers alike to share emotions and look into deeper reasons for a wide variety of topics in concise ways. It can pull apart typical conventions of other literature to reveal the intricacies in emotion and the mundane. In response to Dickinson’s quotation I can suggest that poetry makes meaning through four main channels; ‘internal difference’, form, cultural weight of poetry, and figurative language. These techniques convey meaning between the writer and reader, as well as evoke empathy. I will investigate how poetry can create meaning through examining three sonnets of different periods, with different focuses: Shakespeare’s ‘sonnet 130’, Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, and Cummings’ ‘”Next To Of Course God America I’. I will also suggest that the interaction of individual reader and poem, with its specific time, place and context is critical to meaning, and ultimately that ‘meaning Is contingent’ on these and other factors rather than a fixed commodity.

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A poem’s form impacts on what we expect from the content, its meaning, and often overall theme too. It also effects how the content is delivered. Here I will discuss the form’s reaction to subject. Originally, the sonnet form, coming from Medieval Italy focused on love and this is a significant focus on its adoption into Britain, most notably from Shakespeare. However, sonnet 130 appears to deviate from this expectation. With statements such as ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’, the pronoun ‘nothing’ highlights here a substantial lack of these typically romantic and beautiful features and makes it seem that the subject is not desirable. This displays how poetry creates meaning through its form and subject, which connects the reader and writer here through emotion since it is a universal theme. Conversely, ‘”next to god of course america i’, although a sonnet- does not follow classic sonnet conventions, despite both this and Sonnet 130 exploring different aspects of love. Cummings uses very little punctuation to portray the suffocating, shallow nature of America’s patriotism and make all lines bar the last seem rushed, mechanical and hence rehearsed.

Springer describes this as ‘syntax that seems to make a mockery of meaning.’, and I would agree that perhaps it seems so; upon closer inspection one can also see that each word order is deliberately cultivated to convey its political message, and that Springer signposts a vital point in the poem that the mockery is the meaning. Through his ironic lexis such as inclusion of part of the national anthem; ‘oh / say can you see by the dawn’s early’, made unfamiliar through the line break, and colloquialisms; ‘by jingo by gee by gosh by gum’ Cummings paints the picture of cliché and the suffocating patriotism which ignores its country’s many flaws. In addition, the switch here between the harsh plosive ‘b’ and ‘j/g’ sounds presents a ping-pong effect that suggests the speaker battling with the narrative he is fed, which is heightened by lack of punctuation. Deviating from the focus on love of the first two sonnets, ‘Ozymandias’ instead discusses adventure and human flaw of hubris; the sonnet is presented like a story with a frame narrator distanced from the experience itself. It explores reflections of the construct of self, causing a reader to think themselves of the self as a construct. The three sonnets tell three different stories through differing experience despite their shared form. Poetry can make meaning here through the themes of love, adventure, and politics because they are accessible topics unbound by time that bridge the distance between the creator and the consumer.

Next, I will discuss the way in which form impacts on meaning. In typical style, sonnet 130 is written in three quatrains followed by a rhyming couplet. The first quatrain compares the ‘mistress’ to generally considered beautiful features in what appears to be a negative way, the second quatrain further undermines the classic Petrarchan sonnet, but switches the pronoun to that of the speaker as well as the subject. Furthermore, the third quatrain reveals a little more of attraction toward the woman; ‘I love to hear her speak,’ despite discrediting it after, the rhyming couplet then twists the poem around and finally reveals a solution in that he does actually love her, that she is incomparable and unpacks his final point. Cummings takes much more licence with his form, most likely since he is more modern. The fourteen lines are separated with the last line all alone to indicate a breath being taken and to really highlight the lack of break throughout the rest of the poem. Towards the end the rhyme scheme begins to convolute where ‘slaughter’ and ‘mute’ are switched, causing the end to drag out more and makes the rhyme sound a little disjointed, fitting the subject of the poem. Similarly, there is also a disruption to rhyme scheme in ‘Ozymandias’ from line 7, marking the second section of the sonnet and solidifying the idea that things don’t turn out as planned. Here we see poetry can make meaning through form, specifically that of a sonnet.

Additionally, to make meaning, poetry relies on the ‘internal difference’ between individuals. In order to react to a certain poem empathetically, seeing the author’s intention, there must first be a lack of clarity which is brought to the forefront, uniting the author’s intention of meaning with a reader’s interpretation. Internal difference can be noticed in emotion, and Strachan and Terry state; “poetry is an art primarily to be enjoyed on an emotional level”, which while suggesting the connection between the emotion and the meaning which the poetry makes, fails to mention how academic study of poetry has often been removed from emotional enjoyment. There is also the reliance of the internal difference between poets, Cummings’ ‘love’ sonnet is obsessive and political, whereas Shakespeare’s is about attraction and romance, be it less gaudy than his usual. Additionally, the internal difference between readers which impact how a poem is read and what meanings can be taken from it; but also, between the poet and reader demonstrated stylistically and thematically as well as contextually during the period of the poet and audience. The audience transcends that, displaying how poetry’s meaning is interpretable throughout time.

Moreover, another way in which poetry can make meaning is through figurative language such as metaphor. Dickinson’s poem refers to ‘scars’, but these are not literal, rather a way of highlighting the idea that internal difference is not due to damage, but individuality. Reading poetry and figuring out its meaning can generate empathy from the reader to the poem’s cause. Images such as ‘lone sands’ in ‘Ozymandias’ connote isolation and invoke the reader’s empathy through this metaphor. There is also alliteration in ‘boundless and bare’ which adds to the excitement of the story, while simultaneously pressing the image of nothingness, and assonance in ‘wrinkled lip’ indicating the fast progression through the story. These affect the way in which readers consume the story and interpret on a surface level as well as more in depth academically. Cummings uses simile in ‘rushed like lions’, to highlight speed and brawn as valued American assets, the verb ‘rushed’ furthering the idea of the suffocating spiel of the poem, and the anthropomorphic image of lions connoting a great and powerful animal at the top of the food chain, in much the same way American patriots think of their country.

Shakespeare uses the verb ‘reeks’, which presents strong sensory imagery of overbearing smell, the harsh ‘k’ and elongated ‘ee’ reaching out through the poem almost so the reader themselves can smell it. Strachan and Terry state; “good poetry does have something intangible about it, often seeming to deny and defy any attempt to catch its essence.”, suggesting all meaning can be made ambiguous, whether deliberate or not, and for poetry to be classified as ‘good’, it must present this way. Ambiguous meaning is prevalent in metaphor and figurative language. However, I would argue that although Strachan and Terry’s statement is true, poetry is never affected by how ‘good’ it is, and only how its meaning is made, which at times is clearer than others. Metaphor and figurative language is ambiguous by nature, but still holds integral meaning. Although not discussing ‘”next to of course god America I’, Springer suggests Cummings’ writing; ‘constitute[s] an extension of, rather than an attack on the historical basis of English language poetry’, which can be applied to this poem too through the way he uses figurative language. He personifies the crux of American culture in ‘shall the voice of liberty be mute?’ which solidifies the importance of ‘liberty’ in American, so much so they have a statue. These language techniques convey how poetry can make meaning both the reader and writer can unpack.

Of equal importance is how the cultural weight of poetry affects the reading and relationship between reader and writer. Shakespeare is a household name, and has been so for years, meaning that a reader would automatically assume the content is rife with meaning and spend more time figuring it out than an unknown poet. Similarly, with famous poets such as Shelley and Cummings, one would spend longer to investigate the text and believe it holds more importance. An audience can reread a poem many times still finding different meanings, both intrinsic and extrinsic, which refocus and change the ‘story’ in a poem. Meaning can be helped by context, such as discovering E.E. Cummings was a pacifist who was imprisoned during WW1, which only serves to strengthen the political irony in ‘”next to of course god america I’.

A reader knowing about context of time may also refocus its message, for example one reading ‘Ozymandias’ during the 19th century, where revolution overtakes, it could be more political than I had first assumed upon a 21st century reading. In addition to this, other people’s readings can change your views upon what a poem might mean, such as Biterman’s interpretation that upon seeing Greek translations; ‘It is then obvious that the king of kings spoken of in the poem is actually Nature itself’, an at first unclear and obscure stance. Daiya also notes us to the fact that; ‘‘Ozymandias’ is the name for the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II’. Context such as this makes us question whether context does help understanding, as it feels irrelevant to the meaning in the poem. Hamlin emphasises the; ‘discrepancy between the views of modern critics and the views of the Romantic writers themselves’, highlighting the contextual and cultural disparity. In addition, Hamlin wrote this over 40 years ago, making the point even more prevalent to today. We can apply this to Ozymandias as Shelley’s use of the Greek name could often be lost on a modern audience. To answer, we can derive that although context can be unhelpful and seemingly useless, most of the time it can help enlighten a poem’s meaning if the author has written with aspects of personal experience. This then also makes the connection between reader and writer more prevalent and personal.

In conclusion, for a well weighted exploration into how poetry makes meaning via empathy, I chose three sonnets from different periods for a global overview. This displays how the meaning made by poetry is not bound by time, cannot be fixed, and how poetry helps sustain this empathetic society through bridging the gap between creator and consumer. Through form, cultural impact, internal difference, and figurative language; although it is clear that the list is not exhaustive I suggest these are the most important factors in making meaning through reader and writer. Meaning cannot wholly be created by the words themselves and must first be sculpted by the writer to form their intended message, and then read in the reader’s personal way, thus the meaning is specific to a person and reliant on internal difference.

01 February 2021

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