Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Monkey Tides

I’ve finished drafting a couple of reviews for Orbis, a UK print magazine. One of them is of Prop by Peter Jaeger, born in Montreal and now based in the UK, very much on the avant-garde side of things.

I knew I’d read something about the collection before online and then remembered it was in a mini-review by Rupert Loydell in Stride magazine (you have to go three-quarters of the way down the page to find the comments relating to Prop). Rupert Loydell comments on one of the poems, this one:

need was cooler than a shout
for drifting anchored loosely

pulling here & there
the monkey tides lap up

against the sun-bleached
logs, how they come & go--

what anchor but a yellow petal
gust of wind or even

saying, “Look at the way this…poem moves between emotion ('need'), abstraction ('monkey tides') and the purely visual & notated ('sun-bleached logs').”

I don't refer to this poem in my review, but I read it very differently. I could be entirely wrong to do so. I separated “monkey” and “tides” – so that you have this drifting matter pulling at a (real! but dead) monkey which the tides act on by lapping it against the logs. The tides (and perhaps also the monkey and logs) “come and go” and the only anchor is the inconstant petal in the wind – a fascinating final image coupled with a deliberately tailed-off fragment “and even”

When I read Rupert Loydell’s comment, I googled “monkey tides” and came up with nothing. That doesn’t mean anything in itself. Because something isn’t in Google doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist (even if some people find that hard to believe), and in any case, Peter Jaeger may have liked the idea of “monkey tides” and decided to invent the phrase. It’s certainly no stranger a phrase than the opening “need was cooler than a shout.” The appearance of an actual monkey would be unique in this book (and hence unlikely), but it’s not impossible, given that some of the poems are set in parts of the world where monkeys are plentiful.

It does make me reflect on the open-endedness of meaning in poetry. This is very different from the vagueness and lack of clarity that afflicts beginners’ poems. Peter Jaeger skews syntax and grammar deliberately to create phrases which can mean one thing or another depending on how a reader chooses to connect the words together. This open-endedness is seen as a strength by some critics, as it allows interplay between the poem and the reader. There’s no sense of definite meaning decided on by the writer. But others would demand a degree of clarity from writers, that they should try to say what they mean, or at least avoid confusion by making images sharp and clear, even if readers then bring their own interpretations to the text.

In other words, does it matter whether there’s a monkey in this poem or a specific type of tides? Does the writer have a responsibility to guide readers one way or the other, or is such confusion part of the joy and fun of poetry?


Matt Merritt said...

Interesting post. I must admit that I read it the same way as Rupert to begin with, although your way makes equal sense. But whichever, I think this is a case when the poem is genuinely open - the pleasure of reading it is in large part due to that.
It looks an intriguing book.

Rob said...

Yes, I think many poems in the book work in this way, of inviting multiple interpretation, and the same is true generally of avant-garde poetry.