Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Why Symbolist Poetry?

In attempting to give an answer to the above question, I am actually attempting to answer two distinct but related questions: "Why write symbolist poetry?" and "Why read symbolist poetry?".

I first want to make clear that I in no way look down on poetry that is more straightforward and easier to digest. Much, if not most, of the greatest poetry ever written has taken a form that, while often dense and challenging, is at least more or less clear in its meaning. Symbolism, in the sense I am using the word, is a modern development that arose in the 19th century, and which has been criticized, then and now, as obscurantist, elitist, or, worst of all, gibberish with no real meaning, only a flashy show of words.

I did not always write this type of poetry. In fact, when I first started writing poetry, at the age of 18 (1989, if you're keeping track), it was as far from symbolism as one could imagine. The verse I wrote at that time was mainly in the form of song lyrics, and tended to be very straightforward, obvious, and deliberately simple, even at times childlike in its simplicity. Song lyrics by nature tend to be simpler and more direct than poetry that is written primarily to be read. Reading allows more mental space for dense, complex, difficult writing that the reader may take time and effort to interpret and experience deeply, far more so than the quickly passing words to a song. This is exactly a large part of the pleasure that many readers take in reading challenging poetry and prose, and nowhere is this pleasure greater than in poetry, which is the most intense form of language out there.

My verse writing began to evolve in 1997, when, under new inspirations and influences, and in a dawning awareness of my vocation as a poet, I began to more finely craft my poems and create lines that were denser and more complex in syntax and imagery, and poems that were more nuanced and subtle in meaning. My move toward all-out symbolism, however, began in 2008, based upon new readings that helped me more fully understand what symbolism is about.

All language is symbolic; words symbolize ideas, which themselves symbolize things, whether those things are concrete objects or abstract entities (whether abstract entities actually exist outside of our ideas has been a matter of philosophical debate for centuries, and a topic too large to get into here; suffice it to say that they at least exist in the human mind).

Since language is symbolic by nature, poetry is of course symbolic too. One thing that poetry does is take the inherent symbolism of language and use it to its fullest potential. It does this in large part by taking full advantage of the inherent ambiguity of words. It has been said by many philosophers that words cannot fully capture reality. This turns out to be not only a weakness but also a strength of language. It allows words to be imprecise, which in turn allows them to be ambiguous. And ambiguity, though often seen as a disadvantage (especially in practical situations where maximum clarity is needed), can be a very powerful tool. It allows language to be more flexible. It also allows words to resonate with unspoken and often only dimly understood, yet deeply affecting, meanings.

This last quality is the power of suggestion, which simply means that words often say more than they say. This suggestive quality of language has many uses, from flirting to literature. One thing symbolist poets try to do is to bring out the full suggestiveness of words, so that the poem will have many possible layers of meaning. These layers of meaning are not randomly juxtaposed but intricately interrelated, and are discovered by means of intuition rather than logic. Some would say that poetry of this type accesses a logic that is deeper than logic, the sort of logic that we experience in our dreams. It doesn't make sense, and yet, deep down, it does.

The way to access this deeper logic is by not only transcending conventional waking logic, but also transcending empirical waking observation. In other words, symbolist poetry attempts to see reality the way we see it in dreams. Dreams often seem confused and confusing, but they access deep, hidden truths that cannot be expressed in the simplified language of logical thought or seen in the clear light of day. In order to see the stars, the sun must first go down, and this is what happens when we dream. The bright light of conscious, rational thought, imposing its own valid but limited understanding on the world, has set, our minds are overtaken by the dark night of sleep and unconsciousness, and the celestial lights that are known as dreams appear.

Symbolist poetry attempts to speak to us in the language of dreams, which is the language of the unconscious mind, following strange and mysterious logics that we only barely understand, if at all. When reading a symbolist poem, it is almost beside the point to focus too hard on trying to interpret it, as though it were a puzzle that needed to be (or could be) solved. The symbolist poet wishes his poem to remain a mystery, although one that still provides knowledge and truth. The truth contained in the poem can be best accessed by not making too much of an effort to find it, but instead allowing glimpses of it to appear, unbidden, as you read and take in the images and words. Just as attempting to see the stars by turning on bright lights is self-defeating, so too is attempting to understand a symbolist poem by working out a rational system of definite interpretations. The meaning of a symbolist poem, like that of a dream, is like a faint star that you can only see obliquely out of the corner of your eye, which seems to disappear when you look directly at it.

Symbolist poets work on the assumption that ultimate truth lies beyond our capability to fully capture in words and rational thought, and that this ultimate truth of things can only be suggested. We get, not a full and clear picture of it, but only fleeting impressions, those brief snatches of otherworldly music and dim traces of ethereal light that haunt the deepest, darkest recesses of the mind, hinting at something marvelous and wonderful which we can never fully perceive in this earthly life. The symbolist poem is an assertion, and a reminder, that there is far more to reality than meets the eye.

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