Poetry, Ambiguity and Puns

Recently — I think I was reading Laura Riding’s poetry — it occurred to me that one of the things that appealed to me the most about poetry was its ambiguity. But: there’s a question about what the word “ambiguity” itself means. Suppose I claim that a poetic passage is ambiguous: I could mean either that its meaning is so vague as to spark nothing more than a cloud of associations in my mind, or that there are two (or, in rare cases, more) definite referents, either of which could be meant, without much mixing between those meanings.

The latter case, I’d say, is typified by the pun, which — especially if it’s embedded in a larger piece of writing — is a type of play with language that I find very honorable. Far from being “the lowest form of wit”, the pun means to me a form of humor that easily pushes away the temptation to mock anything, and results in a laughter of, instead of cruelty, delight at the coincidence it exposes. I also find the use of puns very valuable to me in my own poetry (example: “Before I went off to Wall Street to study the ways of the Dow”). They’re great for packing as much meaning as possible into a short passage, and also for “exposing” connections between things, perhaps on a subconscious level — such connections being, I would say, one of poetry’s important hallmarks.

The pun is also clean in another way: the ambiguity it produces is itself unambiguous. There exist a definite, small number of references each pun can point to. Those afraid of becoming too unmoored from meaning can still relax at the sight of a pun. One could even say that what a pun means is its exact multiplicity of meanings. And, therefore, complete ambiguity cannot be achieved by a pun.

The type of ambiguity that is itself ambiguous — whose set of possible references is itself open to interpretation — may, I think, be often denied, with respect to either its poetic value or its credentials as passable writing at all. But, I think it’s of immense worth to poetry. Otherwise, for example, what do we make of something like Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”, one of my favorite poems:

Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.

… Soon, too, after realizing that what one of the things that appealed to me most about poetry was its ambiguity, an inversion of the thought struck me with a kind of horror: maybe one of the things that appeals to me the most about ambiguity is its poetry. Horror because, if ambiguity is primarily a feature of poetry, well, then (following Laura Riding herself), poetry doesn’t really model the world. Riding, who gave up poetry as an art and a career when she was in her thirties, insisted that poetry’s aim towards aesthetic surfaces waived any claim it had to truth.

Yet, I still think that I believe the many poetry fans who must still be out there, who (sagely nodding) understand that there in fact is truth in poetry. Here are the stakes as I see them, then: does the ambiguity that I find so important to poetry itself form part of that truth? Or, to put it another way: is ambiguity a feature of the world?