Meaning Is in the I (fourth ModPo essay)

(The week’s topic was aleatory, or chance, poetry. Bonus points if you recognize all of the hat-tips in the title; I intended three of them.)

  peW
    Announces
   oNly
  baD
wintEr
  woRd
    Is
 sceNes
    Gasp

Here I have created a mesostic using the seed word “wandering” with Rae Armantrout’s “The Way”* as my oracle. I chose this combination because I would describe my own mind as peregrine, and “wandering” links that with the shifting “I” in Armantrout’s poem. I didn’t want to add deliberate meaning to the experiment, so this is the unedited result from the mesostomatic.

The resulting grammar is unconventional but not nonsensical. “Pew announces only bad winter” reads like the clipped syntax of news headlines – a bad winter is the only forecast we get from the pew. And “word is scenes gasp,” with a comma after “is,” acquires a conversational tone; “scenes gasp” could indicate the bad winter – a season of “scenes” where everything holds its breath, waiting for the spring. We could even read “pew” as the research group, suggesting a prediction of a chilly post-election civil/political climate.

More interesting than a particular meaning is that we can find meaning at all in a poem that came about through a pseudorandom, deterministic process where no specific meaning could have been intended. This reminds us what pattern detectors we humans are – we seek patterns and meaning everywhere, so much so that we often see them where they aren’t (both for good reason, ask any evolutionist). Finding meaning in chance poems shows that this applies to language as much as anything else, and it also invites us to ask what meaning really is.

Douglas Hofstadter wrote in Gödel, Escher, Bach that “meaning is an automatic by-product of our recognition of any isomorphism.” A heady statement, but he was discussing the way that no message comes through as uncoded, pure meaning (e.g., this essay is coded in English); an isomorphism is a relationship between two things, “mapping” one onto the other (like a translation). Meaning happens when you make the connection between them. There are all kinds of things (objects, ideas, experiences) that bear a relationship to each other without anyone intending it. The “code” of chance poems may not be organized and deliberate, but if something in it makes sense to you, then you’ve recognized a relationship – meaning has happened. In this sense, chance poems have whatever meaning their readers find in them.

But I think it’s more than that. That they have whatever meaning readers find is itself a (meta) meaning of the chance poem – the fact that meaning belongs to each person who encounters the poem. In a traditional poem, the poet tries to control what meaning the reader sees, but if the readers don’t recognize the intended meaning in it, it’s unsuccessful; that meaning isn’t there. The fact that language is such that it can so often be non-intentionally arranged into something that seems meaningful and, conversely, that we are such that we can find meaning in such arrangements of words may be another meaning.

Finally, there are the questions themselves: what does this mean? how do I find meaning in this noise? if something non-intentional can have meaning, then what is meaning?

We are all too familiar with these questions in another context: faced with the claim that the universe and life and we came about through non-intentional, deterministic processes, the religious ask, “Then what’s the point? What value or meaning can there be in life if everything exists by coincidence?” Atheists seem to have little trouble finding these things. Indeed, many exclaim that it is all the more wonderful that there is such order and complexity in the universe, and that we are here, if no one has been there deliberately making it so. And it is up to us to determine or create meaning in our lives.

Some people will find meaning in chance poems; some will not. Either way, art demands we look at its objects in new ways, and here, the object most in question is meaning itself.

* Read Armantrout’s poem here, and find a PoemTalk discussion of it here. We read this in the second week of the course, when we saw a variety of Dickinsonian and Whitmanian poets (she is Dickinsonian).

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