Deconstruction in Poetry


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  1. #1

    Deconstruction in Poetry


    I’ve been thinking about deconstruction and how it relates to poetry. “Deconstruction” is a philosophy and a method of critique developed by Jacques Derrida in the 1960s and 70s. It is primarily concerned with interpreting text and contends that meaning in text is inherently unstable. This refers to all language so it is a very useful tool when it comes to the fundamental purview of poetry.

    According to Derrida, nothing is intrinsically meaningful in itself. A stone doesn’t mean anything, it’s just a stone. Existence doesn’t mean anything, it just is. Meaning can only be found in context. In other words, meaning can only occur in relationship to that which it may be compared. Another way of saying this is that the meaning of anything contains its opposite. Good is only meaningful in comparison to evil. Love is only meaningful in comparison to indifference. Life is only meaningful in comparison to death.

    Take a brick, for instance. It doesn’t mean anything, it’s just a brick. It may have been intended for use in some structure, but until I place that brick in a wall or in a sidewalk, it has no inherent meaning. Once placed in a larger context it takes on meaning as a component of the greater structure which is gestalt, i.e. greater than the sum of it’s parts - a building, where things happen or people live. Now the brick is meaningful as part of that greater meaning. What also adds meaning to this brick at this point is all the buildings and sidewalks that it is not part of and why. But say I take this lonely brick and hang a little dress on it and put a little hat on it... voila! It’s a doll, or a little girl, or a toy... depending on your view. Context gives the brick a different meaning. This may be a doll for play, for display, for worship. It could be a voodoo doll. We don’t know - but whatever the context is, it will change the ultimate meaning of the doll, and with it, the brick.

    The tricky thing is, that “deconstruction” is like “relativity” in the way that relativity claims that the observer necessarily affects anything he observes, deconstruction claims that to talk about meaning changes the meaning of what you are talking about. Because context is constantly changing and every reader brings a different experience (and therefore different context) to the work. So it’s a very difficult thing to pin down. “Deconstruction” by definition, has a constantly changing definition.

    But we can pin down one principle: no text means merely what it appears to mean. By reading the text we change it, because in order for any text to mean anything, it must imply its opposite, or at least it must imply whatever contrast makes it meaningful, which is unstable. To find meaning in the text, we must also know what the text is not saying. This, of course, is a can of worms. What is the text not saying?

    Important to note, is that deconstruction is not something found in the text, it’s something you do to the text. And it’s something the reader does, not the author. So this opens up a deeper understanding of meaning and what meaning means. What the author puts down on the page has intent but doesn’t really mean anything in itself, or at least it doesn’t mean what it appears to mean. It can only lead to meaning. Meaning is up to the reader and it depends on the context that he/she finds the text within and also the context that the reader brings to the text. It is also up to the reader to determine what the text does not say, which is as critical to meaning as what the text does say.

    Now this is the point at which philosophers and mathematicians and scientists start to roll their eyes and leave the room. But the poets and a few abstract painters huddle in closer until only the poets and painters are left - hanging on every word - because this is the truth to meaning that is so hard to pin down in poetry. It is also the thing that separates poets from everyone else. It is this relationship with meaning - that the harder you try to hone in on it, the more elusive it becomes. Likewise, the poet who twists him/herself into knots trying to squeeze more and more meaning out of every word and every phrase will never really understand poetry.

    So far, the best essay I’ve read on Derrida and Deconstruction is here: https://www.iep.utm.edu/derrida/

    author: Jack Reynolds
    Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy


    I will be away from internet access for the next week or so. So have fun with this. I look forward to reading responses when I get back.
    Last edited by TL Murphy; January 27th, 2020 at 03:13 PM.

  2. #2
    I want to reply with a first few observations, before I head out to read Derrida.

    We had a poet here, who was quite famous. She was in the habit of explaining literally every poem she wrote. What it meant was that she didn't leave the interpretation to the reader, she kept hanging on to every poem. It's like stating: this stone is stone x, it belongs to pile y in wall z. Nothing more, nothing less.
    To me, explaining poems is something I do not like, not the explanations by others of their poems, or explanations of my own poems.

    A stone is indeed very relative to the surroundings, and the use. When the stone is removed from the wall, it doesn't cease to exist. It leaves an emptiness, and a place. You can see the world through the hole it once occupied. The stone can then be placed on the floor, or it has crumbled under the weight of life or gravity.

    The same with words. Removing words, or adding them, changes not only the length of a line, it changes the poem as a whole. It is not done lightheartedly. The words may occupy an important spot in the meter, or can be imperative for the rhyme.

    This is a very personal first reaction, I admit. I like to give meaning to words or lines where others disagree there is meaning. I like to play with the logical structure of a sentence. I also don't like punctuation, unless absolutely needed. All these little parts are the stones I am playing with. But how others see and use them may be completely different. Like LEGO stones. You can build the little car by using the included instructions. But for me it's far more fun to make something completely different.

    Anyway, I'm off to read Derrida now. I may come back, it depends on what others have to say

  3. #3
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    I argued with Lianne Strauss about the idea that one can "meaningfully" psychoanalyse a poet's work after their death, positing that what the analyst saw was what they wanted/expected to see, the poet may have had no "Intent." Sometimes a spade is just a spade, not a metaphor for digging a grave...
    Last edited by Bloggsworth; February 2nd, 2020 at 01:32 PM.
    A man in possession of a wooden spoon must be in want of a pot to stir.

  4. #4
    To me, deconstruction (which can have several meanings itself) in poetry (or prose, for that matter) is saying no matter what meaning the author may try to put in a piece, meaning itself belongs to the reader and is therefore variable. In the history of literary criticism there have been many arguments between professional critics on the meaning of a particular piece. I believe it was Hemingway who said "The old man and the sea" was only a story about a man trying to catch a fish despite what the critics were saying. Yet Hemingway had no control over what the readers/critics were thinking. Still, this gives the author free range in his/her creativity to go beyond standard thinking while turning common concepts on their head. You are free to decide what I meant by that.
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  5. #5
    This discussion has a bit of a connection with some comments I made about intent in Nuts and Bolts - probably the wrong place. Following on the above, even when the poet has announced their intent or given detailed explanations, yes the meaning is still given by the reader.

    There is a habit in art exhibitions which baffles me - the artist submitting a painting is often asked to also submit an ‘artist's statement’, which is appended to the wall next to the painting. It is meant to explain something relevant to the painting - the inspiration, the link to other works and so on. But the statement is completely irrelevant. The painting is the painting, and the reaction of the viewer is necessarily unique.
    Last edited by Tirralirra; January 28th, 2020 at 01:10 AM.

  6. #6
    Interesting topic, Tim. I will read the essay before passing comment.

    In in the meantime, I will respond to Tirralirra's comment re paintings.

    Quote Originally Posted by Tirralirra View Post

    There is a habit in art exhibitions which baffles me - the artist submitting a painting is often asked to also submit an ‘artist's statement’, which is appended to the wall next to the painting. It is meant to explain something relevant to the painting - the inspiration, the link to other works and so on. But the statement is completely irrelevant. The painting is the painting, and the reaction of the viewer is necessarily unique.
    I attend a weekly painting class and for the first hour of the lesson is spent criquing the work of other students. The teacher was in raptures about one painting and how the background connected spiritually with the topic./ foreground She put her interpretation on the picture while we stared at the picture in confused silence.

    Eventually I raised my hand. The two may connect spiritually but there is no definition. The topic, which is a vase of intricate flowers, disappears into the background because both are given equal importance. The visual impact and fine brushstroke of the flowers are sacrificed to a background that is just too loud. The artist is giving us too much information. If this picture was displayed in a gallery it would not catch my eye yet alone fire any spiritual connection. Maybe this is also true of poetry.

    Now off to read the essay.
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  7. #7
    I am planning a bonfire, this evening, upon which I shall toss the entire ream of poetry I've written over the past 35 years, and be well and truly and happily done with it all.

  8. #8

  9. #9
    I am planning a bonfire, this evening, upon which I shall toss the entire ream of poetry I've written over the past 35 years, and be well and truly and happily done with it all.
    That actually sounds really cathartic.
    Dead by Dawn!

  10. #10
    I think one of the major premises of deconstruction is that the artist can never grasp the full meaning of their own work because every work of art is created within a cultural context that goes beyond any single person's ability to consciously grasp the full scope of the culture they live in or the historical and contemporary influences that that they bring to the work. Nor can they fully understand how their own work may influence that culture. All they can do is express their intent. But the greater significance of the work can only be explored in a larger conversation which is constantly shifting.

    I share the frustration over achademia's fixation on intellectualizing the work. But the only way academia can be relevant is to find ways to discuss and analysis intuitive concepts in a rational way. To me, it diminishes the power of the art but on the other hand it is the only way to show art's role in the greater cultural context. It seems to me though that academic art programs are better at producing critics than artists.
    Last edited by TL Murphy; February 9th, 2020 at 01:02 PM.

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