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Venid a ver la sangre por las calles 29.III.2005 00:08

I'm explaining a few things, Pablo Neruda

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For modern society, meaning in art is a fickle and elusive thing; in fact, it can be so elusive that many have been inclined to deny its existence at all. Since the limits of physics and consciousness preclude us from ever knowing the mind of Shakespeare, many modernists and post-modernists give themselves carte blanche to interpret his plays as they please, and project their own meanings onto the works with little beyond their own whimsy as justification. At its essence, this is the project of decontextualisation, of removing a work of art from the circumstances in which it was created and examining it as if in a vaccuum. Here there can be no right or wrong, and belief is its own validation. This view is quite prevalent in our society's interpretation of art, at least at the popular level, but I think it is an incorrect one which robs art of much of its true meaning. I hope to illustrate this incorrectness by examining the above poem, and specifically one line within it, the last one, repeated: come and see the blood in the streets.

There is a relatively famous scene in the film Dead Poet's Society where the students rip out the page of the textbook containing the constructionist, analytical, fascist definition of poetry. The point is that the beauty and meaning of a poem are contained entirely within its words, and it is the act of reading that elicits them; poems are to be experienced, not to be studied. This is essentially the postmodern view of art: once written, the work is independent of its author; it is the reader and not the writer that ultimately determines its meaning. At the heart of this is the deconstructionist theory espoused by the likes of Derrida, which argues that wherever interpretation can be made, there meaning exists, i.e. the act of interpreting itself creates the meaning it elicits. I think the above poem is an apt illustration of the failure of such philosophies.

Let us first take the line in isolation: 'come and see the blood in the streets.' Its repetition, varied emphasis, and placement at the end of the poem clearly highlight it as the defining statement of the work as a whole. Even without the remainder of the poem, it calls up a powerful image, that of human ignorance and blindness to the tragedies of reality, especially those of the common man. Even without the preceding lines, we can see that Neruda is accusing us, and perhaps also himself, of isolating ourselves, turning away from the world's horror so that our eyes may be unsullied by them. The line invites us to descend to the level of those on the streets, who have no time for poetry, and see the way in which they live. Even this one line implies we could not walk away from the experience unchanged. All this can be taken from the line in isolation, and is typical of a modern interpretation, as would show in any English course. Yet more can be seen by examining the line in the context of the whole poem; that much should be obvious, and not even a postmodernist would deny it. However, the bulk of the poem's meaning must be gleaned from examining the author himself; and this is something postmodernism could not condone.

Pablo Neruda, with whose works you're all doubtless familiar, is a Chilean poet who, before writing this, was famed for his metaphysical and romantic poetry, whose subject matter was most often flowers and women. However, he travelled to Spain, and was exposed to the violent reality of the situation there, and determined that he could not keep writing the harmless abstractions that had defined his career and made him famous. This poem, which is entitled 'I'm explaining a few things,' is his admission that all his earlier work, while beautiful, is essentially worthless, because it affects none of the things he's realised truly matter in life, i.e. real human experience. The poem is not self-contained, and its importance would be lost without knowledge of the author, for more than a rejection of care for flowers and metaphysics, it is a rejection of the author himself, changed irreversibly. No reader, in isolation, could understand this; the poem's meaning exists in opposition to the writer.

The first stanza is an obvious allusion to his earlier poems about flowers, speaking of lilacs and 'poppy-petalled metaphysics.' The theme of flowers plays heavily in the poem, as it does in much of his previous work, and there can be no doubting their importance. However, the nature of the flowers here is not explored; they exist rather in the background, object not subject. In this they are victims, removed from consideration, but in the poem they are also objects of destruction: 'do you remember from under the ground my balconies on which the light of June drowned flowers in your mouth?' This stanza, dwelling largely on the subject of vegetation, gains its meaning also from without, from the beginning line of the stanza that follows it: 'one morning all that was burning.' But there, the flowers are doubly destroyed: consumed not only by the fire, but also subordinate victims as the focus shifts to human beings. Yet without Neruda's earlier works on flowers and metaphysics, the weight of their image could not be divined; the image would remain, yes, but it would be substantially weakened.

Another failure of the attempt to put the entirety of meaning in the hands of the reader is that it does not allow us to perceive meaning in absence. In isolation all absences are equal; only in context can they gain significance. Here, such a meaningful absence is that of references to women. Neruda's earlier romantic poetry was famed across the Spanish-speaking world, and women were, poetically, one of his passions. Here, however, you'll notice that no reference to a woman is made. In fact, all the exhortations and personal reminsicences are confined to men, Raúl, Rafael, Federico: 'brother, my brother!' Similarly, innocence is illustrated with children of unnamed gender. In isolation, such touches would be unnecessary; however, when meant to be contrasted with his earlier works, such absences are telling. There could be no clearer rejection of the earlier tradition of his work: how could we know that without examining the tradition itself? A postmodernist could only see these passages as expressions of his kinship with the men in Spain. We, however, can see that this kinship is newfound, and only now is he seeing those to whom he used to be blind. The most crucial of meanings appears only from the poem's external context.

Essentially, I wish to prove here that the study of literary tradition, of archetypes, of symbols, of legends and influences, and yes, of the authors themselves, is vital to the proper understanding of poetry. More fundamentally, however, I want to dismiss the ridiculous notion that the intentions of the author are irrelevant to the poem's meaning. Postmodernism holds that the artist creates something without fully understanding it: he is almost like another reader, interpreting as he creates but privy to no more information than his audience will be. This is the view that I think is ridiculous, and yet I think it has crept, somewhat surreptitiously, into mainstream theories of interpretation. I think in evaluating art, one has to examine the artist, and what he may have intended. While I agree that some associations and symbols may have been subconscious even for him, I do not believe he can be removed from the equation.

Most importantly, I think that in interpretation, there are right and wrong answers. I am not saying that there is a knowable, precise truth about all art; that's ludicrous. However, I don't think that our English classes' view that there are no wrong answers, and that all interpretations are a step forward in the skill, is correct (while this was most prevalent in high school, I've seen it in university too). The serpent is immediately recognised in any work as a symbol of deceit and temptation because that is our culture's archetype; we would be foolish to interpret it otherwise in the vast majority of cases. However, we seem to abandon this theory for the non-obvious, and validate any theory with a blanket relativism. Yet is it not likely that other symbols are as precisely defined as that of the serpent, if only we would take the time to gain the knowledge and do the research? How can we pretend that meaning exists only in the symbolism we possess, and not in that of the author and his society?

The above poem is an apt example because it cannot be properly interpreted without reference to a very specific body of work, namely the author's own, but there are many works which are left even more stripped by decontextualisation. A perfect example of this are the works of Eliot, but my own ignorance of literary tradition and symbolism does not permit me to undertake a proper analysis of any of his poems. Yet I know I am missing something, and over the coming years and decades of my life I hope to fill the voids in my knowledge. If we truly want to see the meaning and the beauty of a poem, and not merely look for catharsis and private meaning, we simply must study the world within which the poem was written, for it was the act of writing, not reading, that truly gave it life: reading only allowed that life to be seen anew. Such context can give worlds of meaning to single words or names like Icarus or Orpheus or Echo; it can allow a single line to convey an entire work, and sometimes an entire life and an entire culture. The art of poetry is the art of giving words meaning which they do not inherently contain, and this meaning comes from the world from which the words spring. Venid a ver la sangre por las calles. The meaning of a line in isolation can be exhausted in a mere paragraph. But, taken in the entirety of its existence, not deconstructed but looked on from above, so much more can be found, seen and appreciated. Come and see the blood in the streets.
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