Thursday, 23 January 2014

Don't get me wrong

Several initially unconnected trains of thought have come together this week, and now I'm going to subject you to my efforts to string them together.

I tend to like poetry that leaves itself open to the reader's own imagination*. I don't mean deliberately ambiguous or obscure, or so vague as to defy any attempt to impose meaning, but poetry that doesn't set out to shepherd the reader down one particular route. It isn't the old mainstream/alternative divide, I don't think, because looking down my bookshelves I can find good examples of this in both camps.

So, I also like it when, in a review, say, my own poetry gets read in a way that hadn't occurred to me, or that at least hadn't been the initial driving force behind the poem. This happened recently with Roy Marshall's review of The Elephant Tests in Hinterland - his reading of a couple of the poems makes more sense, now, than what I had assumed would be the 'obvious' reading.

I was thinking about this at Monday's Shindig, and afterwards. I enjoy hearing poetry read or recited a lot (at least, when it's being read by the poets themselves), but do I like to be able to read the poems later too, if at all possible, because there are always going to be nuances that you miss (my hearing isn't the greatest, either, which doesn't help).

Then yesterday, I started thinking about pop songs that, even after years, continue to be misinterpreted, no matter how often journalists or their writers point out the 'real' meaning. I don't mean misheard lyrics, but things like Ronald Reagan's attempt to co-opt Springsteen's Born In The USA as a patriotic flag-waver, rather than the outburst of disappointment and disgust that it is, or the way that Every Breath You Take is trotted out as the sort of romantic 'our tune' that gets played at weddings, rather than the stalker-ish creepfest that it is. In both those cases, and several more, the song's huge commercial popularity probably depended to a great deal on being misunderstood, although neither make any particular effort to hide their true 'meaning'.

So I started wondering a couple of things.
1 Whether there are any poems that have become popular in a similar way (in as much as poems ever become popular these days)?
2 Why there's the difference between poets and songwriters in this respect. The former generally say they want their work to remain open to the reader's interpretation, while the latter are more prone to pointing out the real 'meaning', yet the latter seem to get misinterpreted more often (partly, of course, because most of us don't sit down to read song lyrics very often).

* There are exceptions. Some of my favourite RS Thomas poems (and there are few poets I like better) seem to me to do an awful lot of telling, rather than showing. By rights, I oughtn't to like them, but I do.

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