So, what is a poem? Many renowned poets have provided us with equally varied qualitative definitions of poetry but quantitatively a poem (or any work of literature for that matter) is a collection of words. However, this view hurls back the question, what makes a journal entry of travelling and dining expenses or a to-do list different from a literary work, both being collections of words? The answer is as apparent as it is confounding; the difference lies in the meaning the collection of words conveys.
For example, we are all more or less familiar with a to-do list but consider the following one,
Replace Anton Drexler as the chairman.
Attempt the Beer Hall Putsch.
Become the Chancellor.
Enact the Reichstag Fire Decree.
It becomes immediately obvious that the above is anything but an average person’s to-do list. Now under the title, “Adolf’s To-Do” the above collection of words can be called a poem, for not only the set of words paint a staunch picture of Hitler’s initial rise to power, it also predicts the outbreak of fascism in the later years, that culminated in the diabolic blitzkrieg and heart wrenching holocaust.
Now, if a poem is a collection or set of words, what does it mean! It is apparent that an image made out of millions of tiny red, blue and green light emitting diodes on the television screen, means more than those lights mean, either individually or combined. The same is true for any work of literature as well; the collection of words ought to mean something greater than the words in the set can mean. Accordingly the above list means more than being the chairman of a political party or the chancellor of a country or the enactment of an oppressive law. In retrospection, it presages the onset of the Second World War.
At the same time, just like a single word has connotations along with what it may denotes, a set of words also has a sensual meaning and an intellectual one. The difference between these two meanings has been aptly explored by Charles Lamb in his article on the tragedies of Shakespeare, through contrasting the former one, as conveyed by a performer on the stage with the latter, as imagined by an avid reader, going through the text of the play. For my future arguments’ sake, I shall term these meanings as a. sensual perspective and b. intellectual perspective. I hope the synonymous nature of “meaning” and “perspective” requires no explanation, for what something means to someone is in the end what that something was perceived by that person.
The above discourse makes us curious because the creation and interpretation of both these perspectives happen in the conscious part of a human mind. So we are left with the question, what was the subconscious part of a poet doing when the conscious part was busy composing the poem. This article proposes a hypothesis that tries to provide a satisfactory answer to the question posed above but not before issuing a general note of caution to the esteemed reader. It goes without saying that the author of this article is not an academician. He is more akin to an illiterate poet than to a man of letters. What I propose here is what I have observed while reading poems and inferred by the dint of my less than adequate reasoning faculties.
What I have observed, both in the works of my contemporary poets and the old masters, is that the subconscious part of the poet’s mind is also highly active during composition. Like an ethereal bird it unfolds its wings from the dark crevices of the mind and rises up. Without being too obvious to the composer, it rises up and leaves a trail of breadcrumbs in the poem being composed, for other poets to find and explore. I say for other poets because I believe these breadcrumbs remain hidden from any occupied or focused readers’ views. For an elaborate explanation of these different kinds of readers please see one of my earlier posts, “A New Classification for Poetry”
For an example let us consider the word ‘Autumn’. What does it signify – Ripeness and completion or decadence and degeneration? So, whether the poet has associated the word with the former or the latter is a possible breadcrumb for other poets to investigate. If sincerely explored, these breadcrumbs will furbish the poem with yet another perspective along with its sensual and intellectual ones. Let us call this the psychoanalytical perspective.
Now, before concluding I would like to point out one of the key features of this perspective. Generally speaking, the trail of breadcrumbs in a poem remains invisible to the composer, unless reviewed in retrospection at least 5 to 6 years after the poem was composed. However, to an observer, free from the subjectivity of the composer, having glimpses of the trail happens to be lot easier. This is one of the reasons why a great work of literature is interpreted in myriad ways and also a prerequisite for any work of literature to outshine the stamp of time in order to achieve the classic status.