Art Without Author: Interpreting Poetry
Recently Cambridge students were asked in an exam to write about a poem consisting only of punctuation, Tipp-Ex-Sonate by the South African writer Koos Kombuis. Jon Kelly discusses how to make sense of such a poem. Apart from the general discussion of interpreting such poetry as anti-art or typographic trickery, the article mentions something specific about the poem:
'In fact, according to Kombuis, a long-standing anti-apartheid activist, Tipp-Ex-Sonate was a protest against censorship laws imposed during white minority rule. "If you know about the historical and political context you could make sense of it as an inability to use a language that's tainted by apartheid," says Ford. But assuming undergraduates did not have access to an internet connection, it would be difficult for them to work out the poem's intended meaning, he adds.'
This reinforces an opinion that I have expressed on this blog several times: a proper understanding and interpretation of art, especially modern art, requires a certain awareness of the social-political-philosophical-religious context, and a knowledge of the author's intention. From my perspective, an understanding of Tipp-Ex-Sonate remains incomplete as long as the reader is unaware that the poem was a protest against censorship; we remain deprived of the 'objective meaning' of the poem. (By objective meaning I refer to what an author attempts to convey to the reader via a work of art.) Yet, modern art and poetry continue to be presented to the public in anthologies, magazines and museums without the necessary context that is required for proper appreciation. Modern art is in this sense paradoxical: it implicitly or explicitly insists that a work of art be taken on its own terms and be interpreted utilizing the internal clues it has to offer, while at the same time the work of art is more often than not produced to serve a certain purpose or convey a certain message, such as protest against authority or rebuking of tradition, which cannot be discerned wholly from the internal clues.
What I wrote in an earlier post warrants reiteration:
'The point is, unless the poet himself reveals what the poem is about, the reader is free to judge the poem as belonging to any category he thinks appropriate. When a poem is published in isolation, the objective meaning of the poem is lost, and the poem becomes a matter of complete subjective interpretation, capable of being fit in any category the reader believes it to belong to. The poet abandons a poem to subjectivity by withholding the objective meaning. Of course, people can and do argue that this very subjectivity is what makes poetry what it is. If that is so, well, then that is so. The question of "What does it mean?" becomes irrelevant, because the answer to that is "It means whatever you want it to mean."'
* By 'modern' I refer loosely to both modern and post-modern.