Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Re: There Be Dragons

Someone read the poem “There be Dragons” and asked for an explanation. When he didn’t get a very good one he wrote to another poet, “I hope you can do better than L. Helm, who, when I offered my heart-felt interpretation, all he said was that it was 'beyond' what he meant, and that his creation being too recent, he felt unable to cope with an exegesis of it.”

In general, if a poet can agree to an exegesis of his poem -- that is, if he can agree that X is what it means, then he probably should have written X in prose. If it can be reduced to prose without anything left over, then it shouldn’t be a poem.

On the other hand, if someone explicates a poem and sees something the poet didn’t intentionally put there, that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. A poet must be responsible for all the ambiguity in his poem. He needn’t be consciously aware that some interpretation is going into his poem as long as, later on, he can listen to the interpretation and agree that it is there. And if he decides like Frost did in regard to several of his poems that subsequent interpretations were silly and far-fetched, perhaps he should see in those interpretations a problem with poems that are so general they can mean almost anything. I recall reading Frost’s commentary on some interpretations of his “Mending Wall.” He scoffed at all the interpretations he has read and said he had an actual occurrence in mind. He seemed to reject what was beyond what he intended as he wrote the poem. I don’t think such a rejection is legitimate.

You asked about the reference. Sun Tzu is being used for all sorts of things nowadays – business strategy, for example. I allowed for some ambiguity in citing that reference.

So yes, I use the imagery of a battle, but I hope for it to be seen as battle-lite. You wrote, “Now the implication of 'doing battle' is that there will be deaths -- on possibly both sides. And I will be more than curious to know what historian, war-tactician, or politician said that." Churchill? Bush?” What you wrote would be true if I had in mind Churchill or Bush, but I had in mind Sun Tzu who initially wrote very generally on the Art of War – so generally in fact that his precepts are being used for a wide variety of purposes – many not involving deaths, and I would be disappointed if that particular ambiguity (deaths) were to be clearly shown in the poem.

Lawrence Helm

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