In Other Words

This week was a tricksy week to be travelling and mostly disconnected from the internet, but this comment came up at the meta at Challies’ blog over the lurid language complaint John MacArthur has made against Mark Driscoll, particularly about how we read poetry:
I think the question of the extent one talks about sex is one issue, but I don’t follow you on the interpretation of poetry. Would you make this a general rule that poetry should not be interpreted line by line?
And what bothers me about this statement is that it was made by Justin Taylor, who is what I would call an erudite guy – well-read, and an editor of some significant note. He knows something about this subject.

I’m going to answer his question three ways here. In other words, I’m going to find three ways to think about this, the first is by pointing out a poem to you:
    Call the roller of big cigars,The muscular one,
    and bid him whip In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
    Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
    As they are used to wear, and let the boys
    Bring flowers in last month's newspapers.
    Let be be finale of seem.
    The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

    Take from the dresser of deal,
    Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
    On which she embroidered fantails once
    And spread it so as to cover her face.
    If her horny feet protrude, they come
    To show how cold she is, and dumb.
    Let the lamp affix its beam.
    The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
This is the brilliant poem, “The Emperor of Ice Cream”, by Wallace Stevens. Now I ask you: as a general rule, should a poem be interpreted line by line?

Why yes: of course it should be interpreted line-by-line. It’s a poem. In some cases, it is worth interpreting word-by-word. But, what are we interpreting for? What are we seeking to gain from the interpretation?

See: I use this poem because, frankly, it is far more sexually-explicit than the Song of Solomon – far more intentionally sensual as it is about a funeral in whore house. But does that give us a mandate or even the natural liberty to expound on what “the roller of big cigars” means in the crassest terms? Can’t a cigar simply be a cigar?

So if we would, for the sake of merely being literate people, not have to talk about all the implications of big, brown hand-rolled cigars when speaking of a poem written by an agnostic secular writer, why would we want to require ourselves to expound on images which we think we see in the Song of Solomon?

So that’s way #1: unpacking every possible nuance of a sexually-charged poetic passage is not even nearly-profitable.

Way #2 would be this: not every poem is written for the same purpose. For example, and I think Challies did this already, when you think about the poem Psalm 119 and then the poem the Song of Solomon, one is a didactic and exalting poem about the purpose of God’s word in the life of the believer, and the other is a wedding poem, exalting the groom and the bride.

So it would serve the reader well in the didactic poem to make sure all the explicit nuances are grasped, but in the wedding poem, which is occasional and not meant to be instructional but in fact respectful and honoring, I think it is easy to see that as the apostle Paul said, things of lesser honor being given greater honor by covering them up. And there is no analogical rosetta stone for the reader of the song of Solomon to tell us how certain passages correlate to body parts or whether it is merely emotional and relational gratification the writer is “really” talking about.

As to the third way: it’s a fundamental error to ask a reductive question like this, and I am afraid Justin knows it. “All poetry”? Really – there’s a rule for reading “all poetry” which is an adequate stand-alone rule?

I like Justin. He and I have correspondences which always sharpen me, and I hope they sharpen him. But I think the path he is taking here in redressing Challies’ post and point of view is, frankly, not his best work.

Your opinions may vary.