by Jeffrey Side

To many people poetry is a turn-off. The reason for this is that poems are boring. They are boring because very few move people to identify with them. Poetry is no longer about reader identification but about author communication. A poem is written merely to convey the poet's thoughts and feelings about a specific event, situation or place he or she has experienced. The poet is not necessarily concerned with whether the reader is moved or not by the poem, so long as he or she understands clearly the message the poet is trying to convey. This message may consist of some 'important' insight gained from an experience, or it could be (as is usually the case) a jaded statement about some mundane aspect of contemporary life.

The popular song, however, does more than this. It excites both the imagination and emotions; it enables you to unlock your own highly personal box of images, memories, connections and associations. This is most readily evidenced in the songs of Leonard Cohen. Even the most perfunctory of his songs is able to do this to a greater extent than so called 'serious poetry'. This is because his songs (and to a lesser extent songs in general) utilise imprecise and abstract statements rather than particular and specific ones. Poetry, on the other hand, does the exact opposite of this: it utilises particular and specific statements rather than imprecise and abstract ones. This aversion to abstraction grows out of the influence of Ezra Pound who advocated a poetry that contained no abstract words or statements; one in which only the natural objects in the world are to be regarded as always the best symbol. And it is this poetic ethos which is drummed into students in schools and poetry workshops throughout the world.

Mathew Sweeney and John Hartley Williams in their book Teach Yourself: Writing Poetry (Hodder & Stoughton, 1997) exemplify this anti-abstraction stance:

Many people still think that high-flown, abstract words give greater resonance to their writing, but vagueness is always a consequence of using abstract words. We would go further-abstractions should be avoided because they verge on the meaningless. If you think of the word 'sadness', for example, all you get is a blur in your head. If, on the other hand, you ransack your memory and fix on an experience that was a truly sad one, and tell people about this experience, your listeners will not have to take your word for it that you experienced sadness. They'll know because you've shown them.

Here we can see enacted the aesthetic of the author as the final arbiter of meaning. Sweeney and Williams place value only on the poet's feelings. The reader, for them, is merely a passive witness to the poet's experience of sadness. No mention is made that perhaps the poem would be a better one if the reader was allowed to experience sadness as well. But Sweeney and Williams know that for this to happen abstract words would have to be used, and that the employment of such would limit the poet's authority.

The limitations of such poetry are plain to see if we compare some such lines with those of a song. First the poetry-a stanza from Frank O'Hara's "Cambridge":

It is still raining and the yellow-green cotton fruit looks silly round a window giving out on winter trees with only three drab leaves left. The hot plate works, it is the sole heat on earth, and instant coffee. I put on my warm corduroy pants, a heavy maroon sweater, and wrap myself in my old maroon bathrobe.
O'Hara was considered by many critics to be an innovative poet, reacting against descriptive realism in poetic writing. But as can be seen from this stanza, such praise is innapropriate. What we have here is a prosaic and descriptive piece of prose which leaves nothing to the reader's imagination. This writing style is the basis of the operating principles of all contemporary poetry.

In contrast to this let us now look at a verse from Cohen's song "Night Comes on" from the album Various Positions:
I said mother I'm frightened, the thunder and the lightening, I'll never get through this alone. She said I'll be with you, my shawl wrapped around you, my hand on your head when you go. And the night came on, it was very calm. I wanted the night to go on and on but she said go back, go back to the world.
Nothing could be further away from the inanity of O'Hara's poetry. Cohen is not afraid to generalise, for he knows that it is only through generalisation that the reader can recognise the specific. Keats understood this when he said that a poem 'should surprise by a fine excess, and not by singularity' that 'it should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost as a remembrance' (letter to John Taylor, 27 February 1818). This is simply not possible with poetry like O'Hara's.

The Cohen verse quoted alone contains more information and suggestiveness than entire poems. The verse states at its beginning that the speaker/singer is frightened. He is stating this to his mother, but we are not told if it is his literal mother he is referring to or to some sort of metaphor for God or 'Mother Nature'. The choice of which it is is left to the listener. We are told it is the thunder and lightening that frightens him, but the exact cause of the fear is left vague. After all, the thunder and lightening could be metaphors for anything-existential angst, perhaps. He does, however, say "I'll never come through this alone" which seems to suggest that the fear is not of "thunder and lightening" but of a more metaphysical nature. This imprecision enriches the listener's experience of the song and allows us to decide for ourselves the meaning of his fear.

His 'mother' tells him that she will be with him when he goes. Where is he going? Is he going into the fearful situation represented by the 'thunder and lightening'-an existential experience akin to 'the dark night of the soul', or is he merely going to his appointment at the dental surgery? Once again, it matters not, because the language is so suggestive that it evokes myriad interpretations, some sublime some less so.

The "night came on", possibly not the literal one. More, perhaps, a feeling of comfort and reassurance brought about by the knowledge that his mother/God/nature is with him in some sense. Whatever it is he wants it to continue, but something tells him to "go back to the world". Who tells him this: the 'mother' figure or the 'night'? The choice is left up to us.

Cohen allows the individual listener some interpretive freeplay. His lyrics, rather than dictating what they mean allow the listener to to look to themselves for what the song 'means'-however idiosyncratic the interpretation. We should extend this wisdom to the way in which we write and read poetry. What the poet 'means', or intends, should not be of primary concern to our enjoyment of the work. Surface meaning, if present at all, can be a disadvantage, as it spells itself out so well that we don't want to look any further. It ties us down to a limited surface meaning and hinders our imaginative and creative powers as a reader. In such an instance the poem becomes didactic: it does not allow our mind to become part of the creative process that all enjoyment of art requires.

A satisfying poem is one that enters your mind and turns the key to your imagination. It enables you to find specific meanings and emotions that only you can recognise because they are filtered through your memory traces. A poem that fails to satisfy does the opposite: it tells you what it is about, the feelings you are to feel and the understanding you are to have. The words and images of a poem should be looked upon as devices that you can use to paraphrase every thought you have had, are having, and will have. The words should be twisted, stretched, moulded and freely associated to mean anything that you want them to mean. In this way you become, in effect, a creative talent in your own right-you write the poem as you read it, so to speak. This is the way we already approach songs and the reason why songs have more personal relevance to the majority of the world's population than poems do. If this approach was applied to poetry then poetry would no longer remain an art that most people look upon as emotionally irrelevant to their lives.

© 1998 by Jeffrey Side, Liverpool, UK. Reprinted here by permission.