Reading and perhaps understanding poetry is a very complex and difficult duty. It comes with pain and pleasure, the painful part of our reading is to communicate with the poem that we are reading it, and the pleasure part comes when the pain is over and we have understood the poem. Let’s continue our discussion with reading one of Mark Strand’s poems, it called “Keeping Thing Whole”.
In a field
I am the absence
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.
When I walk
I part the air
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.
We all have reasons
to keep things whole.
The purpose of reading of any texts is not only understand it, but also possessing the text as our own familiar piece or product. Understanding is our primitive tool to communicate with a text, to familiarize and to clarify the strangeness of that text. We need to know the text both as a whole and as its constitutive elements to be able to take control over of it. [I would query your use of terms such as “possession” and “control,” which implies ownership, and a kind of one-way relationship between reader and text]
If understanding the meanings of a text is so essential to our relation with written products, then what will happen if we cannot reach our essential [is there only ever one “essential” goal in reading a poem?] goal? Understanding [perhaps the question is: what do you mean by “understanding” here?] the meaning of a text is always essential for the purpose of our communication but it is not always easy to reach it. Poetry, for instance, is not very accessible territory to search and catch up its meanings, or at least, the overall meaning of a specific poem. In reading Mark Strand’s poem, we all have the same question, what does this poem mean and what does the poet, Mark Strand, want to say [how can you be sure that we all have the same questions?]? I know, we cannot get almost anything from this poem and the only thing we can say to quote J Austin’s remark regarding what one of his audiences was saying about his lecture: “I haven’t the least idea what he means, unless it could be that he simply means what he says”. We can say now that Mark Strand in this poem says what he means to say.[nice use of Austin here]
If understanding poetry is impossible, then we need to search for the some potential ways which this impossibility becomes possible. Many scholars emphasis on the impossibility of understanding poetry, including Austin. In his remarks on Performative Utterance, in the part of his discussion, where he directly deals with the issue of poetry and its meanings, he argues that when a poet says “the falling stars” he does not really mean what he is saying. In writing poetry, Austin argues that “it would not be seriously meant and we shall not be able to say that we seriously performed the act concerned”. If what a poet says is not what he seriously meant to say, then what was he exactly meant to say? To answer this question, we can come up with two different responses; he means nothing and he means everything. As we can see, these two responses value the same, it’s quite clear that saying nothing is somewhat equal to saying everything. [but when Austin says that poetry is “non-serious,” he’s not saying that he doesn’t understand it; he’s not referring to meaning here, but to the force of the utterance – he distinguishes between meaning and force]
If poets do not seriously mean by what they say, as Austin argues [no, that’s not really what he’s arguing], then our communication with poetry becomes impossible. We know that Derrida argues for this impossibility, stating, “If communication possessed several meanings and if this plurality should prove to be irreducible, it would not be justifiable to define communication a priori as the transmission of a meaning” 2.[Derrida is definitely less confident about complete success in communication than is Austin]
If we cannot communicate with poems, as Derrida suggests [does he? I think this needs explaining in more detail here], then the process of reading poetry becomes ironically meaningless, or even worthless. But we know that people read poetry almost every day and they have done this for the length of the human history. Then the next question will be why people read poems while they already know that they cannot understand it?
One of the prospects answer would be that they do it because of the purpose of the pleasure. People please themselves by reading poetry. But without communications, how pleasure could be possible? How can possibly we please ourselves by reading something that we do not understand it, and we do not communicate with it at all?
I would like to argue that understanding poetry is not only possible but also real. We understand poems when we read it prior to any pleasure we receive from it. This does not mean that I have the desire or the ability to oppose the very historical and popular theories of poetry readings, nor I have the scholarship ability to purpose my own theory. What I want to suggest is to revisit the quality of understanding, and to see how it functions and how personal or general the process of readings and understandings are?
When you read a text, you need to remember that “You” are reading the text and in most cases you’re left alone with a written phenomena which does not speak for itself, or even it does not seem to be something, rather it looks like a dead body of some sort of dispersed thoughts [somewhat like Derrida’s signature on his text: the text is a sign of the absence of the writer]. Reading is the process of connecting words and their contents together, to label them and to form the written text the way we want. Reading is actually the process of forming or reforming the existed structure of a text. The purpose of the forming a pre-formed text is to discover, as Derrida puts it, the ideal content of the text (meaning). The problem here, as Austin mentions, is how to classify words based on their general and popular definitions and meanings. Some words are very curious, very different for the rest of the words and perhaps they don’t have a proposed meaning, or their meanings depend on how they act in the sentence. And more importantly it also depends on how we see them and how we mark their actions in the sentence.
In reading poetry, at least each word, independently has its meanings and when we want to establish our ideal content of the whole text, then the problem of meaninglessness arises. This means that every single word as an individual species, comes with its general and popular content but we cannot connect these singularity contents together. Let’s re-visit Mark Strands poem, “Keeping Things Whole”. This poem has only three short sections, and here is the first part:
In a field
I am the absence
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.
Now we can say with certainty that each word, even in their structural presence in the poem, has meaning. In a field, for example, exactly means in a field and cannot be meant anything else. We can continue our journey to read this section by going through every single sentence and line. The process of sentence and line reading becomes problematic when we reach some strange area of this poem, for instance, when it says “wherever I am, I am what is missing” [this poem, in its scene of the interplay between presence and absence, is very appropriate in a consideration of speech, presence, intentionality, meaning, etc. – a really good choice for this paper]. We know that this statement doesn’t make any sense, it doesn’t say anything and also has the ability to contain unlimited “ideal contents”. Based on this analysis, now I can argue that, I have the potential ability to make one of those unlimited “ideal contents” for myself, acknowledging the fact that my identical content of the sentence is only my personal or even private concept of this sentence and has nothing to do with the general reading of this sentence. I can continue to make my own and personal meanings of each sentence. To connect ourselves to this poem and its world, we are inevitable to form our own and personal meanings of each sections and based on that we can frame the whole poem as a one shot picture of the reality.
The argument here is that a great part of poetry meanings are not structural or fundamental, but instead quite personal elements of poetry. Discovering, or I should say creating meanings for a poem is the essential part of poetry creations. We complete the unfinished process of poetry creation, in a way that we prefer or enjoy more. The poet is gone, or even dead and we are the only resident of the poetry land. We know that the poet tried his best to leave the poem as unfinished as possibly he could do and now we need to finish or complete it as best as our personal ability allows. [it’s worth keeping in mind that “we” can be a problematic concept]