Speaking of Meaning


Last night I meant to post. But I couldn’t, thanks to Mialka and Terry, who graciously provided my ticket to hear David Gray play at Radio City Music Hall. Though you might not like Brit Pop (whyever wouldn’t you?!), you have to give credit where credit is born: Gray has a killer voice. The recorded medium really doesn’t do it justice.

I swear, he is the new and improved Elton John. Whenever I’ve seen shows at Radio City, I’ve always left with the feeling that acoustics in music halls should be attended to. This time I left feeling pleasantly surprised. Gray and his crew spruced up that stage and put on a show worth many cell phone shots. At least, that’s the medium the audience around us was trying to capture the fun with.

Anyway, speaking of meaning. I like to read philosophy and theory in their various forms. But that doesn’t mean I “get it” in the traditional sense. For instance, one of my friends, Kam Shapiro, published his dissertation, Sovereign Nations, Carnal States, under the category of Philosophy/Political with Cornell University Press. I like to read his little tome now and then. I thoroughly enjoy excerpts. Simply put: they poke, they prod, and they stimulate; they make me think. Additionally, I should probably be concerned with understanding the message or the overall “thrust” Kam intends, but I am not. And he knows this.

Why do I prefer not? Well, I don’t exactly prefer not, however, I’m not of the initiated. I’ve always known that Kam is better prepared than me when it comes to theorizing. Hell, I’ve asked him to simplify and explain the gist of rigorous thinkers like Wittgenstein on car rides to Baltimore before. But am I really worried about deciphering Kam’s ultimate view and intent when I read his complex, thought-provoking book? Somewhat, but not terribly.

I think my approach to such difficult texts has been affected by my reading poetry. I am only concerned to a limited degree about the poet’s intent. I might ask, “Did she mean to do this? What was her inspiration? What concept am I suppose to grasp through this? Etc.” But I don’t really need to know in order to appreciate the text. Do I? I realize that theory is written in prose and has intentional objectives, whereas poetry permits the reader a certain porousness of text that allows us to enter and experience, rather than simply extract an intended message.

Thanks to my limited experience with systems of philosophy, I typically grant myself license to ignore those systems and to process the excerpts I indulge in with a certain openness. That openness lets me decipher and experience the text in relation to my own understanding of the world. It allows me to bring in matter foreign to the system itself. I’m no scientist nor do I fake being such (not while I’m reading anyway). Perhaps I also risk seeking out text that agrees with how I see things, but if I am honest with myself, I read what also doesn’t seem to fit and let it unsettle my worldview, even if only for a few moments.

I think poetry and philosophy are, overall, methods through which we try to understand how we exist, what ways of thinking and behaving ensue, and where we might improve and explore. No text can diagnose and prescribe all of that at once, so we keep reading. I do so repeatedly in fragmented ways that hopefully edify and better my existence, though I don’t know if “bettering” is the proper path to take.

Don’t forget though, party people, poetry exists in the world more than I am wearing short pants on an early October night. This poem recommended by fellow Gimme Coffee patron & friend, Ossian Foley, should inspire your Friday night:

Hypothetical Antipodes,

Hardly any of me is solid any more, I mean I buy
things every day.
And there comes a time when I am feeling
as windblowed as the apples
in the Shenandoah.
And there goes I who then again began
tho what does this Mrs. Begin?
(she says I am)

And cast down me wretched
sinner unto thee I am
slightly different from
a corpse as a funeral
in that I am less made up
but made up worse.

Who I thereby did appoint myself
but forgot which was mirror.
I stand stabbed with wrench piss
rabid at the counter
matter of things in the room
with which I

Somewheres crossed up in hot
antarctic mountains
they live backwards together.

Whose feet then were backwards
whose feet were needing shoes
so badly in 1964 that millions
virtual millions of shoes were
sent to “Appalachia Virginia”
for they were too poor—“backward.”
America glared haughtily at
local shoe burnings that Christmas.

But I’m not antarctical
nor hypo

My mind gleams like the fangs
of a viper in white heat
dying to sink my teeth into
the throat of something wrong.

Philip Jenks, from On the Cave You Live In

Music Philosophy Poetry

AMY KING View All →

Amy King is the recipient of the 2015 Winner of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) Award. Her latest collection, The Missing Museum, is a winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. She co-edited with Heidi Lynn Staples the anthology Big Energy Poets of the Anthropocene: When Ecopoets Think Climate Change. She also co-edits the anthology series, Bettering American Poetry, and is a professor of creative writing at SUNY Nassau Community College.

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