Poetry, Uncertain Knowledge, and Linguistic DNA.


Jack Underwood wrote in the Winter 2017 issue of The Poetry Review:

“If a poem works it’s because you’ve made it such that other people might participate in making it meaningful, and this participation will always rest on another person’s understanding of the poem and its relationship to a world that is not your own.”
(from ‘On Poetry and Uncertain Subjects’ TPR p.43)

I don’t disagree with this at all, but when I read Underwood’s essay, I also happened to be reading Helen Dunmore’s Inside the Wave, and these two texts have come into alignment for me with a recent TES article called ‘There is no “correct” answer in English’.

It was argued in the TES piece that schools should be asking students to give interesting and creative interpretations of texts instead of asking them questions of the ‘How did the writer use…?’ variety. This sounds like quite a tempting idea – creativity is after all a Good Thing – and it ties in with Underwood’s comment on the key importance of “another person’s understanding”. This is (part of) the idea behind Rolande Barthes’ The Death of the Author; in fact Andrew Otty, the author of the TES article, dismisses any thought of authorial importance as the kind of thing any first-year undergraduate should be outgrowing, citing Barthes along with IA Richards and others. But I disagree with Otty and reading Helen Dunmore has helped me crystallise for myself exactly why. This: no one but Helen Dunmore, in her exact situation at that specific time at the end of her life, could have written the poems in Inside the Wave. There was only one way it was ever going to come into existence – this one particular woman being who she was, when she was and (certainly for some of the poems) where she was. There’s no way round that for me – Dunmore gave creative birth to Inside the Wave shortly before she died, and we are all the beneficiaries of that.
I realise this is missing the main Barthesian point that once the text is in the world, then the Author dies, leaving the reader with all the power for meaning generation (and for Barthes in 1968 The Death of the Author was all about the transfer of power); and this may make it appear that Dunmore works against me as an example, and becomes a slightly over-literal reading of the Barthes metaphor, but I don’t think so: she as an author is gone, and the text remains for all and sundry to make of what they will; but the DNA of the text (that is the choices of words, phrases, thought-groups or lexical chunks, grammar structures, metaphor, juxtapositions, line breaks etc., the “foregrounded language” as Underwood has it) is hers and it will always be hers no matter what new meanings are attached by subsequent readers. Underwood quotes a line from Momtaza Mehri to illustrate the impressionistic nature of poetic language:

“Here is where an afternoon eats its meal from the hollow of elbow pits.”
(from Asmura Road, NW2)

But as impressionistic and open to interpretation as it may be, there is not a single element of this sentence (including, to one extent or another, its adherence to spelling and grammar conventions) which did not involve a choice being made, and each one could only possibly have been made by Momtaza Mehri. Those choices, which remain now as the words in the line, are the line’s linguistic DNA. Think of all the other choices that Mehri could have made all the way along that line. Change any one thing and you have a different line. Change any one line and you have a different poem:

“Here is where an afternoon eats her meal from the hollow of elbow pits.”
(from Asmura Road, NW2)

In some cases, of course, the choices may not be the author’s at all but those of their editor or friends, or anyone who may have added ideas. Whoever made the choices (and in this sense the poet whose name appears above the poem may not be as important as they seem), they become the genes from which any subsequent meanings will be able to grow. The area of criticism which analyses a text’s heredity, or ‘how it came to be’, is called Genetic Criticism for a good reason.
Underwood uses several extremely apt metaphors to illustrate the uncertainty of a poetic text: “a huge shoal of jellyfish”, “an open habitation” in which the poet leaves “holes in the walls”, “unstable material”, “someone who has something specific to say by their dancing”, “the precarious ledge of an inconsolable question”. All these metaphors make the point with great clarity, but to them we might also add this: the child who has been left alone in the world when their parents are gone, who may be influenced in life one way or another, who will make decisions and have decisions made for them, who will become one thing or another, who will fail or thrive; one thing amongst all this uncertainty will remain unchanged and unchangeable about this child – their parents’ genes which they carry in their linguistic DNA.

I think this addendum to everything that Underwood pointed out in his Poetry Review essay out is important because it underlines a dichotomy at the heart of contemporary poetry – that is: poems are places of “uncertain knowledge” as Underwood says, and yet they have a stable genetic core because they are built by people who are themselves definite (as in well-defined), certain (as in very sure) and very diverse (clearly, as in of very different backgrounds, sexualities, genders etc.). Within contemporary poetry, then, the uncertain and the certain come into direct confrontation.

And yet if we acknowledge that there is both certainty and uncertainty in poetry, we may avoid misunderstandings like January’s Rebecca Watts controversy. One way of describing what happened there might be to say that Watts was defending the rigorous analysis of “uncertain knowledge”, while Hollie McNish and her fans were wounded by an attack on the certainties of her poems’ DNA.

All of this is why I disagree with giving students a free hand to be creative with their analyses of literature. This should be part of it of course, but if they are allowed to ignore the author entirely they are simply not being asked to tackle the work in its entirety.

And finally, could linguistic DNA be a way of approaching issues of race and gender in writing and reviewing poetry, as highlighted by last week’s Ledbury Festival event? It is surely important to allow that while uncertainty is one of the great strengths of poetry, the twin certainties of ‘who wrote a poem’ and ‘where they came from’ also matter; otherwise the call for diversity in writing and reviewing sounds purely political.

It seems that Jack Underwood is working on a book of essays on uncertainty in poetry called NOT EVEN THIS. It should be a fascinating read.


When I copied a link to him on Twitter, Jack Underwood kindly replied to my mini-essay. I summarise what he said here:

The author is not a constant. The linguistic DNA is never there because in language the subject is always in the process of becoming. We see the evidence of the writer’s decisions but that writer is only a further text which requires constant reinterpretation and self-reinterpretation. Poems may be evidence of the “problem” of personhood, but they cannot be authenticated by it. We are changeable and changed by our own poems as much as they are different in the heads of others. This leaves us as very unreliable narrators of ourselves to ourselves since the narration belongs to language and not to us. It is very voidy, and the void is very much against our nature. A lot of gender studies comes out of this and numerous writers talk about the constructedness of race in language terms.

I had not thought of the author of a text in these fluid terms, or the idea of a poem as evidence of personhood – but of course it is. I get the feeling I am just scratching the surface here. I need to regroup on some of these fascinating ideas (especially the notion that ‘the subject is always in the process of becoming’ – a poem in itself!) and post again in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, if anyone has any comments of agreement or disagreement on any of the above (or any suggestions of good books to pick up to learn more), I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

Thanks again to Jack for his stimulating essay and response to mine.


5 thoughts on “Poetry, Uncertain Knowledge, and Linguistic DNA.”

  1. I find it quite frustrating when people feel that they interpret a piece as they wish. Absolutely students should be able and encouraged to explore interpretations. However, there’s a danger in doing this without a critical eye, not just from the teacher but from peers as well. “I see Oliver Twist as a satanic phlebotomist.” “OK! Well done!” At its heart, art is a form of communication and the author’s intentions ARE important. That said, the artist has a responsibility to his message to frame it appropriately. “Ulysses” is a vast tapestry but pieced together, Joyce’s message comes through. Even if the artist is aiming for confusion, he needs to do that well (consider early Dylan and just about everything by Syd Barrett). I guess I’m saying in my inelegant way that art is a two way street and it would be nice to somehow grab Melville by the scruff of the neck and ask, “Just what the hell IS the white whale!?,” but Herman’s long gone and we’ll have content ourselves with the enjoyment of chewing over the mystery.


    1. Hi Kenneth, anything but inelegant! I agree with you, and it was the frustration with the idea that anyone can say anything about a text that worried me about the TES article. But I find what Jack Underwood says about Uncertain Knowledge fascinating, and what about this idea that when we transfer our ‘selves’ into language we become an ever-changing subject…? This represents a whole new way of coming at poetry for me. As I say above, I need time to absorb and read more around it! Thanks for commenting!


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