Archive for June, 2006

Art and Meaning

June 30, 2006

Why do minor chords sound sad? How can a color be cheerful, reflective or soothing? In short, how can the physical phenomena of an impersonal universe correspond to feeling in us?

The part of our brain that responds emotionally to light and sound responds differently according to which end of the spectrum the light falls, or whether a chord has a flatted third. Somehow, the brain mates emotions to the outside world.

Art explores that mating. It is a mistake to call a work “art” that means rather than explores, and it is probably a mistake to choose forms developed for artistic exploration for the job of explaining what one means, i.e., for discourse. It is a bad writer who has some idea to describe, and does so by dressing it up in metaphorical language and needlessly rhythmic sentences–by writing a “poem.” If the goal is to explain an idea, why not do so in a plain, literal manner? Art (or should I say, good art?) doesn’t “express” meaning, it brings meaning about through an arrangement of design elements.

My tastes and interests lean toward that which explores effects and relations over that which expresses ideas. Elizabeth Bishop was my first favorite poet (not counting ee cummings, as a teenager), I think in part due to her fidelity to the aesthetic principles I’ve described. In the case of writing, I like effects that come from the relationship between the narrator’s thoughts and the outside world. This kind of thing is especially enjoyable in poetry. Examples of this kind of technique include describing a real landscape to create an association with an internal state, and minimal reliance on explicit metaphors. If the symbolism is overt, the author is merely dictating meaning instead of arranging the conditions of its discovery by a reader.

So, art should be like the world, not inherently meaningful but also not random. Somehow, seemingly merely by virtue of being a part of an order, we can find meaning in it.


There’s a famous poem about this. Is it a poem that instructs that a poem should not instruct? Oh well, rules are made to be broken.

Ars Poetica


A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,
As old medallions to the thumb,
Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—
A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.
A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,
Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,
Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind—
A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.
A poem should be equal to:
Not true.
For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.
For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—
A poem should not mean
But be.