"Tell the truth but tell it slant" is code. For "poetry."
In the New York Times Book Review this week, there is a letter taking issue with anti-intellectualism in a review about poetry. The review was by David Kirby, the book was David Orr's Beautiful and Pointless, and the letter-writer, Allan Benn (his signature included his credentials: professor of English at East Stroudsburg University) chided, David Kirby and David Orr imply that poetry has no subtext worth pondering. ... Why do so many poets insist that poetry, rather than having "no idea but in things," simply has no idea—just the vehicle, no tenor? That reading comprehension should supercede imagination and wit? Give me code cracking any day. Codes can have rhyme and reason, and beauty, too.
I am glad someone wrote this letter, although I would have approached the metaphor of "code" more cautiously. I hear it thrown around quite a bit: poetry shouldn't be "coded;" poetry you can't understand right away is merely a "code to be cracked;" it is always understood that this kind of poetry is bad, or at least ... cold. Yes, I've heard that I don't know how many times.
But I have never read a great poem that didn't yield multiple meanings on re-reading. This involves what we might think of as coding, yes? I have never read a great poem that didn't use figures (e.g. metaphor, image) to express meaning. This, too, is a kind of coding.
The major poets of the canon apprenticed to their craft not only by studying their predecessors, but translating English poems into Latin and Greek (and Greek and Latin into English). Talk about code-breaking.
When the word "code" is invoked, it is code for: contemptible elitism. Maybe some people really do believe that classroom code-breaking stifles a more natural, democratic relationship between poem and reader. But the earliest English poems on record include metaphorical riddles—a medieval pastime for just folks. The ancient texts of our major religions rely on parables and symbols that have generated centuries' worth of interpretation. So "code-breaking" of some sort is a pretty time-honored methodology for reading poems and poetic texts. It has also proved vastly entertaining.
Is anything more coded than a country song? There's this Blake Shelton song on the radio these days:
Who are you when I'm not around?
When the door is locked and the shades are down
Do you listen to your music quietly
And when it feels just right are you thinking of me?
Hm, I wonder what he's singing about. I'm sure more than a few of those millions of listeners can figure it out. Even though it's coded.
I really can't speak to why this should be such a thinly-veiled insult.
But I do know that the kind of poem I want to read is as full of promise and potential as the libryrinth; the kind of poem I want to read has a snaking logic of underground caves and aquifers. It is porous as limestone and luminous as marble. It puts its paradoxes right up front: "If it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones,/Are consistently homesick for..." and it marks its passage through time with an acknowledgement of our doubleness, our good- and badness, with puns and metaphors and lines that can mean two opposite things at the same time.
The kind of poem I want to read can seem mysterious and riddling when I'm twenty, and much less mysterious and riddling when I'm forty, but retains the capacity to astonish throughout. It is an adventurous poem that reflects the unknowable adventure that is life, and is full of the knowledge that only coalesces in hindsight, with experience. I, personally, don't think of that as code. But if anything that interferes with literalism, that invites interpretation, or god forbid research, is figured as code, well then. I'm on the other side of that line.
Ange Mlinko was born in Philadelphia and earned her BA from St. John's College and MFA from Brown University. She is the author of five books of poetry: Distant Mandate (2017); Marvelous Things Overheard (2013), which was selected by both the New Yorker and the Boston Globe as a best book of...