Ambiguity in Poetry

rubiks_cubeIn a writing group recently, one of the participants said about a poem of mine “It’s accessible.”

I thought about that. I wasn’t sure if I should be happy or insulted.

I chose happy, but only just. The poem wasn’t meant to be ambiguous, so I couldn’t fault the participant for the statement. But it made me wonder why I didn’t know how to react. For me, accessible poetry is great, but I love a good ambiguous read.

It’s because I enjoy feeling like I’m discovering something in the poem. I remember my reaction to Gertrude Stein’s If I Told Him, in which she uses Picasso’s own approach to painting to describe him. I loved the way she injected her own style of creating new meanings for familiar words into describing a man who did the very same thing with painting.

However, plenty of people who love to read poetry might not like it. It’s not accessible. Not without some work. And certainly not if one is trying to use a word-by-word interpretation. There’s plenty of hidden meaning in the poem, don’t get me wrong. But it’s not sitting there, easily understood. Nor should it be, in my opinion.

And that’s the issue we poets have to deal with — how ambiguous can we be, should we be?

It’s been discussed and debated as long as there’s been poetry and ambiguity in writing. When should we keep the interpretation up to the reader? How far should we lead readers before we let go?

Here’s my take:

In stories and movies, the most interesting tales have depth. Like in life, the stories with more angles and parallel stories feeding into the main story are the ones that stick with us. We love knowing more about the characters around us, and we enjoy discovering a little fact that brings it all together and makes it personal. Watch any murder mystery and tell me you don’t look for that one character whose behavior tips you off.

One of the best examples of ambiguity is Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken, which to the casual reader sounds like a man who went on an adventure and is looking back with satisfaction.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Or is he? What does that “sigh” represent? Happiness? Regret? Exasperation? Likewise the last line and how it ties in to the first in the stanza — what was that difference? Is the outcome what he’d hoped for? Not really, right?

If that didn’t make your head spin, try this one from E. E. Cummings, a master of ambiguity:

Love is more thicker than forget
more thinner than recall
more seldom than a wave is wet
more frequent than to fail
Where’s the ambiguity in that? He’s forcing us to read what sounds like a negative image, but is really a positive statement on love. That he uses such an opposing stance in his word choice makes it a brilliantly ambiguous thought.
That begs the question: should we be leaning toward ambiguity or away from it?
That depends.
I think we should be asking ourselves some basic questions first:
  • Who is our audience?
  • How will they react to ambiguity?
  • Are we using it to say something or wearing it as a bit of a costume?
  • Are we leaving enough open to interpretation? If not, are we leading the reader too much or too little?
  • Do we want to leave things up for interpretation?
  • Is the underlying story strong enough to matter in this poem?

Poets, how do you use ambiguity? Is it something you do deliberately, or is there less of an intent to it?

One thought on “Ambiguity in Poetry

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