Clarity

October 5, 2007

Where wars have ended, the weapons fight on
And fears have passed, but defense is still active
Nuclear winter has passed into our homes
Fission split us, the atomic age was a deep gulf
And it sundered us

I tried to reach you, God knows I did
I tried to cure you, I gave my blood
But it was compromised, now I’ve caused more
Damage than I repaired

You cannot believe that I forswore selfishness
We could not give a full accounting of the prisoners

And the chemical winds its chimerical talons
Around the pillars of civilization
The end has begun!

I can feel my love grow cold, I’m dying from within
I can feel my love grow cold, I’m dying

Christ, call down a heart for me to reclaim

You can hear this song here — it’s the one called “Part Company”. So, here’s where the rubber meets the road … elsewhere, we’ve been discussing clarity of communication vs. beauty in word choice … so weigh in! What do you think this song means? And is possible misdirection worth it to use obscure words? Let’s see how close to my intended meaning you can get.

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23 Responses to “Clarity”

  1. dslavich Says:

    Is it about divorce? Or leaving the evangelical church?

    Man, I have no freaking clue.

    I’m almost always willing to sacrifice some poetry for the sake of greater clarity. What’s more important anyway, poetry or truth?

    I know that I would be ousted from serious poetic circles for such a statement. But I don’t care.

    Muddy waters do not equal subtlety or poetic greatness.

    My thoughts at least.

  2. Ben Says:

    Oh ho! Pilgrim’s Progress is a very instructive work, but most people would agree that Dante’s Divine Comedy is a better piece of literature, just as TBN’s gaudy “JESUS SAVES” sign on the side of their building is inferior to the Notre Dame Cathedral.

    I guess the difference is, you see poetry/art as a means to an end, and that the finished product is only valuable for its results. I think that God made us creative beings, and sometimes our creation has value for its beauty as much as for its practical results.

    I think, too, that a work with greater poetical skill can often portray a greater depth of expression / emotion, even if at the cost of lessened clarity. Muddy waters do not equal subtlety or poetic greatness, but that doesn’t mean that every difficult work of art is not subtle or great.

    And you’re partly right, it is about divorce (the first part at least), but not at all about leaving the evangelical church. Maybe after more comments come in I will provide a full explanation.

  3. Ben Says:

    No, I take that back, it could be a little bit about leaving evangelicalism, though I didn’t intend it that way. It’s more of “a Spiritual Reawakening” than any specific movement, although I guess it was dissatisfaction with Calvinism and my own doctrine-centered callous heart that spurred me on to write it (the lyrics = probably 2 years ago, the music = 8 months maybe?).

  4. Lee Says:

    Hmm. I’m not sure what you mean by “obscure words” in this case. Chimerical isn’t that obscure, and it’s the most “obscure” of the lot (and I don’t see it’s utility in this case – what does it matter if the talons are attached to a mix-and-match beastie?)

    I have no idea if there is a central message – I see multiple, seemingly unconnected threads.

  5. Ben Says:

    Yeah, well there are definitely several ideas floating around in there. I guess that there aren’t too many words that are obscure, but it’s the same thing we’ve been talking about … you know, is this too unclear to mean anything?

    And chimerical must be an obscure word if you don’t know its primary definition, which is more based on the later “re-use” of the word chimera as an illusory, mysterious, or fanciful concept.

    So, the chemical winds its illusory, mysterious, and fanciful talons around the pillars of civilization. I’ll give a bit away here and say that the chemical could be technology and modern progress, or modern life and disaffection (described in the earlier sections). Its talons are chimerical both because it sounds good, and because the destructive effect of the chemical (modern disaffection) is illusory and mysterious, almost like mind-altering drugs, I guess.

    Too many layers? Perhaps. But to me, it’s touches like that that make reading or writing a poem worthwhile.

  6. dslavich Says:

    So, Ben, are you saying that poetry must be obscure and use cool words that aren’t used in a clear way to be good?

    Dante’s Commedia is entirely clear, by the way. It’s just not an allegory.

    I see art as valuable, but, you’re right, in many ways I can’t escape my desire to be didactic. C.S. Lewis had the same problem, so at least I have decent company.

  7. Lee Says:

    No, I just wasn’t assuming you were going for the modern meaning of chimerical, that being too obvious for you, Ben πŸ˜‰

    Seriously – if your Chimera has talons, then… But I guess that’s being too literal. Also not you πŸ˜‰

    I’m afraid there are too many layers for me. But then again, I’m not a fan of T.S. Elliot (or John Cage, to skip back to music for a beat), so what do I know.

    I do see the appeal of “chemical/chimerical” where chimerical is sort of an anagrammatic superset of chemical. But to tell you the truth, every time I read that line, I can’t help but read “chemical winds” with a short i in winds (as in zephyrs) – that’s partly due to the fact that a “chemical wind” is already an established concept, but mostly because you’ve already invoked the concept of nuclear fallout.

  8. Ben Says:

    Hm interesting on the chemical winds there — not a problem if you’re only listening, but a bit confusing (or is it another layer?) if you’re reading it. I don’t like John Cage either, but I know what you mean. You also don’t like Joyce, as I remember. Eliot and Ezra Pound would be two of my biggest poetic influences, so that might explain a lot, although another of my influences is the much less modern (but still great) George Herbert. Although, with Herbert, you kind of get the same feeling as … those Beethoven string concertos that he wrote “for a future age”. You listen/read it and you’re like, “No way this was produced before 1900”, not in a “this sucks” way, but in a “this is amazing” way.

  9. Ben Says:

    Dante’s work is clear on the surface, but from what I’ve been told, contains quite a number of subtexts that are not immediately apparent. The person to reference here would of course be my wife, who has read it twice and discussed it at length with her peers, but I’m pretty sure that it’s not simply what it is at face value.

    Must poetry be obscure to be good? No. Do I prefer the type of poetry that is obscure? Yes. Think about it like music. Does a piece of music have to be an incredibly complicated baroque fugue to be good? Of course not. But if you’ve got a good one, whoa.

    Yes, C.S. Lewis did have the same problem. I think your approach is a perfectly valid one; although the only C.S. Lewis book I’ve read that I thought was truly great literature was The Great Divorce … and that, though primarily didactic, incorporates much that is merely speculative and has a richness and depth that a didactic-only work might not be able to achieve.

  10. Lee Says:

    I’m not sure what you guys are referring to concerning Lewis and not being able to write in a non-didactic style. (Incidentally, Ben – you don’t think that Perelandra is at least as good as The Great Divorce?)

    You guys need to read “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism” (which can be found in Christian Reflections).

  11. Lee Says:

    …I mean Lewis struggling to write in a non-didactic style. In fact, from what I remember of the introduction to tGD, he says that it’s fantasy and not to be regarded as a theologically sound (my copy is out on loan so I can’t quote it directly).

  12. Ben Says:

    I haven’t read Perelandra, just OotSP. I wouldn’t say he struggled to write in a non-didactic style, but rather that his work was primarily didactic in nature, even in fiction, and therefore suffered perhaps from the pitfalls/gained from the advantages of a didactic-primary approach. TGD may not be a theological work (I haven’t read the introduction) but it is a great piece of Christian Literature, which, if it doesn’t give us reliable information about the nature of heaven and hell, still helps us to learn about God, heaven, and hell, through interaction with the moral issues and ideas he presents.

    I don’t think we’re walking untrod ground here — Lewis and Tolkien have quite famously disagreed over whether allegory (and I would extend this to mean any didactic-primary work) is better/worse than straight literature. I’m probably flubbing the concept a little, but personally, I prefer Tolkien to C.S. Lewis, even though reading his works will probably not give me a good theological education. Objectively, it would be hard to say which is more valuable. But I think Tolkien’s route makes for better literature, and not because he was more intelligent or a better writer.

  13. Lee Says:

    Yes, indeed. And they could argue about their own intentions with perfect authority. (Lewis, whose scholarly expertise was in allegory, stated that the Narnia tales were not allegory while Tolkien was no fan of allegory.)

    You might consider this from “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism”:

    Reviewers, both friendly and hostile, will dash you off such histories with great confidence; will tell you what public events had directed the author’s mind to this or that, what other authors had influenced him, what his over-all intention was, what sort of audience he principally addressed, why–and when–he did everything.

    Now I just first record my impression; then, distinct from it, what I can say with certainty. My impression is that in the whole of my experience not one of these guesses has on any one point been right; that the method shows a record of 100 per cent. failure. You would expect that by mere chance they would hit as often as they miss. But it is my impression that they do no such thing. I can’t remember a single hit. But as I have not kept a careful record my mere impression may be mistaken. What I think I can say with certainty is that they are usually wrong.

    (Emphasis mine.) He goes on from there to argue that modern Biblical criticism should be looked at with equal skepticism.

    P.S. Lewis didn’t like Elliot or Joyce, either πŸ˜‰

  14. dslavich Says:

    This is a great discussion.

    It’s like Inklings online or something πŸ™‚

    As I was thinking about this today, my main question boils down to this: should art communicate meaning? And if it should, how clearly?

  15. Ben Says:

    Yeah, this is totally fun.

    … it’s kind of a continuum, isn’t it? I mean, as my wife pointed out to me this morning, Dante was also kind of didactic, just not as didactic as Pilgrim’s Progress.

    So you might have Bunyan, and a little closer to the center, Lewis, then Dante, and cross to the other side w/Herbert, Tolkien, further out with Eliot, and then way out in left field you get to Finnegan’s Wake. So, I guess neither of us is going to write Pilgrim’s Progress or Finnegan’s Wake, so it’s kind of like, what’s more important to you? Clarity, or … the other, whatever it is? Too clear and it’s, well, childish or unsophisticated. Too obtuse, and it’s … well, just dumb and pretentious.

    So, though I’ve been chastised for obtuseness, you guys basically got the gist of my work here, but it’s obviously not as clear as “Acorn” … but then again, “Acorn” is not as clear as that last poem Danny wrote. Etc.

  16. Lee Says:

    Inklings online: I wish!

    Whoops – Eliot, not Elliot…

    Maybe we should ask some non-analytical people if art should communicate meaning πŸ˜‰ We three are all analyticals who also happen to be creative on the side – that might skew our viewpoints.

    With that disclaimer, I think that art can’t help but communicate meaning. Even if none is intended (Jabberwocky comes to mind), we do our best to assign meaning.

    So should the artist go out of his or her way to obscure that meaning? I think that there is a place for doing so – and that sometimes color and nuance arise from such an approach. But I myself don’t appreciate obscurity for its own sake (I can appreciate Salvador Dali, but not Jackson Pollack). I think that begins to remove the work from the realm of art and moves it into something else – possibly the academic or purely intellectual. (Another example: is a Sudoku puzzle art, or an intellectual game?)

  17. dslavich Says:

    Well, Sudoku is tedious, more than anything πŸ™‚

  18. bonniekate Says:

    OK. So I am the newby in this convo but I am going to try my best to catch up and say something relevant or at least provocative (if nothing else – which is probably how it will turn out…)

  19. bonniekate Says:

    2 things:
    Danny states – “should art communicate meaning? And if it should, how clearly?”

    I absolutely do not think that “art” NEEDS to do anything, in fact some would evaluate art by the credo “Does it have entertainment value and does it look hot on my wall” – a Los Angeles based photographer… which has nothing to do with meaning – not that I agree with him…

    However, I think “Art” ONTOLOGICALLY communicates something (because we usually associate the term “art” with modes of expression). Weather it communicates what is true or useful or clear or illusive is what makes it interesting…creativity is noticed by its verity and differentness – which brings me to my second comment…

    Lee states – “So should the artist go out of his or her way to obscure that meaning?…
    (I can appreciate Salvador Dali, but not Jackson Pollack).
    I think that begins to remove the work from the realm of art and moves it into something else – possibly the academic or purely intellectual. ”

    Lee’s opinion of Pollock is clearly a preference. Obscured meaning or the clarity of an allegory is also subjective. There can be something soulful about an abstraction that extends past words – that is purely emotive.

    Lee goes on to reference puzzles as an intellectual conundrum. I think a line should be drawn here between a puzzle that is meant to be figured out in a timely manner, verses an abstract piece of work – an expression to be enjoyed – rather than questioned – possibly enjoyed for personal reasons and subjective interpretation.

    This desire for art to communicate can not always be satisfied because artists dont always like to give everything away… Perhaps the best art can be appreciated and continuously revealing new things over a life-time. I mean, God’s creativity goes WAY beyond our comprehension, and I would hope that a good artist or a good work of art would mimic the complexity of God’s Character that we mirror.

    Closing example: “Royal Tannenbaums” – the movie by Wes Anderson. I just re-watched this for the zillionth time. I actually picked up on new themes and subtleties that were communicating to me about the story in a thrilling way (though not really about anything in real life) and – as usual- I was effected not only by the overt duologue between characters but the use of color, music, time laps, and so forth…

    ok, ok, enough from me… have fun with your boy’s club…

  20. Lee Says:

    Bonnie! I’m glad you joined the conversation. I hope your last comment doesn’t mean you won’t be back.

    Ok – so let me start w/ the Sudoku reference. While there is a definite and distinct “meaning”, if you will, to every Sudoku puzzle (i.e., its solution), I have actually found myself enjoying the symmetry of many of them (before I start to fill in the missing numbers). Most of the time, at least for the ones I solve, there is a great deal of symmetry to be found in the contrast between the “clue” numbers which are already filled in, and the empty boxes. A parallel in nature might be, if you’ll indulge me, the spiral of a the shell of the nautilus which is one of many examples of a logarithmic spiral found in nature, and which can neatly be described mathematically. Is it art? Most definitely! Is it also a mathematical puzzle? Yes, I believe so. Does it convey meaning? Mathematically, yes. Does it convey something about its Creator? I believe the answer there is yes, as well.

    Working backwards, yes – I guess I made my preference (or lack thereof) for Pollack clear, didn’t I? πŸ™‚ I find it very interesting that that Chopin, Rachmaninoff, and Mozart, to name just 3 brilliant composers, had the ability to reduce their audiences to tears by means of highly structured and organized compositions which also convey a wealth of meaning. But you’re right – there’s a great deal of subjectivity involved here. One person’s Debussy (or Monet) might be another’s Cage (or Pollack).

    Lastly, I’m a little confused by your statement that art ontologically communicates something. Are you saying that “just by being”, art communicates?

  21. Lee Says:

    BTW – is this a boy’s club, or a Mancini club now? πŸ™‚

  22. bonniekate Says:

    πŸ™‚ Thanks Lee for your digestion of my comment.

    Since Cage is not only one of my favorite Musicians, but also of writers I have to laugh.

    I think that: yes: just by being, art communicates something. Specifically if you are saying that just by noticing a pattern in a mathematical puzzle is, in its way, art.

    In a broadly inclusive definition one could make the statement that art only needs to be pointed out, noticed, observed to be art. Aren’t we in agreement that this is true in nature? (Golden Ratio in a sea shell being great example.) Observing is is the foundational premise or philosophy of photography. For more complex thoughts on this topic you might refer to a tricky piece of literature: “Techniques of the Observer” here is a summation : http://mh.cla.umn.edu/txtimbw3.html

    Just as in nature, man-created objects communicate by their existence. It may be existing to communicate: “I am bored” or it may be to communicate “MY SOUL ACHES because of this tragedy I have witnessed” or maybe “that girl sucks”…

    Variety, Creativity, Acknowledgment…

  23. Lee Says:

    Well, I did request some comments from different perspectives, didn’t I? And you so thoughtfully (and quickly) provided some!

    Really? I didn’t know he wrote – but I see that he freed the acrostic from its restrictive boundary… Sounds like something he would do πŸ™‚

    Ok, I’ll buy that. And we basically agree – art communicates (as I said earlier, “art can’t help but communicate meaning”), though we arrive at that conclusion through different routes.

    I’m not sure that I agree that art only needs to be observed to be art, however. But this is a VERY subjective area, and one which has plagued the NEA (or at least its detractors) for some time now.

    I read the summary you pointed to – is “vision” there referring to the concept (“that artist has vision“) or the physical process? It seems (to me) to be referring to both, and I can’t make a lot of sense of what is said as a result. Is Crary saying that someone’s viewing of a sunset is less important for what is going on in the back of their eyeballs (which in turn excites their optic nerves, which in turn results in certain memories being triggered, certain thoughts of an aesthetic nature being thought, etc.) as compared to the date on which they viewed the sunset and whether or not they stepped on a beetle (which wasn’t then available for a bird to eat causing the bird to die, causing a cat to die….)?

    For now, perhaps we should restrict the discussion to the written word – which is where Ben and Danny started, after all. I suspect that meaning “has more meaning” (i.e., there are fewer degrees of subjectivity available), if you will, when dealing with the written word as opposed to the visual or auditory arts.


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