Ways of Meaning by Alison Croggon
“As an artist, my relationships are experiential rather than theoretical. I certainly share with scientists and philosophers a desire to make sense of my existence. It is just that my approach is poles apart. It is a fragile, highly intuitive process, in which sensory acuity and memory are subtly intertwined.”
~ Jonathan Mills, State of the Arts lecture 2010
I had an English teacher in high school who one day strode into class, looked around belligerently at his students, and demanded to know if any of us read poetry. I did. I had read the dusty anthologies we had at home from end to end, and supplemented them with random buys from school jumble sales. I was a passionate and indiscriminate reader, devouring Alfred Noyes and TS Eliot with equal enthusiasm.
But this teacher so clearly thought that no one – and especially no one in this class of scruffy 13 year olds – could possibly read poetry for pleasure, that I didn’t dare to raise my hand. I sensed that he himself didn’t like poetry much, and that the price of outing myself would have been his unexpressed contempt. Certainly, he was a bad teacher of poetry.
I guess it wasn’t all his fault: the pedagogical approach to poetry was discouraging. I don’t know if schools still do this, but back then a staple of English comprehension lessons was the question: “What is the poet trying to say?”
This question enraged me. I didn’t think the poet was trying to say anything: the poet said it. The poem was what it said: it wasn’t there to be nailed down to an unambiguous message, but instead, like life itself, shimmered in its sensual ambiguity.
The meanings of a poem exist as much in its sounds and rhythms as in its semantic sense: but it was precisely those material aspects of language that were dismissed in the insistence on a particular kind of comprehension. After all, the suspension of certainty that is at the heart of any work of art is not easily translatable into exam questions.
Later, when I read Baudelaire’s insistence that “a poem must be a debacle of the intellect”, I knew exactly what he meant. Poetry is the place where the legislating impulse of language, even to its very grammar, is exploded from within, where our desire for order and control meets the anarchy of existence.
This subversion of the human wish to control reality is where art finds its power. It isn’t always a comfortable power, but it is always liberating, opening the consciousness to new perceptions of the world we live in. As Jonathan Mills claims in his lecture, art is one place where the many possible ways of perceiving and understanding can be articulated.
It resists paraphrase, claiming for itself a primacy of experience that is parallel to, if not the same as, life. And like life, its liberations are too often chained by the insistence it conform to a very limited idea of what “meaning” is.
In her famous 1964 essay Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag called for an erotics of art. “What is important now is to recover our senses,” she said. “We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.”
All anyone needs to understand art is to look, to listen, to feel: all else follows. They are, not uncoincidentally, exactly the same skills we need to love. Yet our education system leads us to believe that this is not enough. I’m sure that this is the primary reason for the hostility so many people, including my English teacher, feel towards art. Having been taught that they ought to look for meaning in the wrong places, art makes them feel stupid, as if they are found wanting.
That’s not the fault of artists nor of those who reject their work. But it does express a terrible failing in our culture, a constriction of our thought, that has far wider implications. And as Mills suggests, if we are to face the challenges of our future world, it’s a failing we need to address.
Alison Croggon is a theatre critic, blogger, poet and novelist. Her blog Theatre Notes is one of Australia’s most respected reviews, criticism and play news.