by George Drew

gloss your text.
You’ve left me desolate and vexed.
Johnny Wink

Every English teacher I ever had talked about levels of meaning, particularly when it came to poems, especially those of such inscrutables as Pound and Eliot and Stevens. That a poem has multiple meanings was a cardinal rule. Such possibilities are what make poetry “difficult.” As a student falling in love with poetry, I accepted this both as cause and effect. But questions arise, two especially: What exactly is meant by levels of meaning? How are those levels achieved?

Diction is the first, and most obvious, way. Word connotation is not exactly rocket science, difficult and complex though it might be in context. Words can mean more than one thing, and sometimes those meanings can seem contradictory. Nothing new there.

Obviously, too, syntax—the construction of sentences—can complicate meaning, not to mention the music, the linguistic and voice tonality of the poem, its rhythms, able to both open up and conceal meaning. Nothing new there, either.

Imagery, individual and patterned, also can contribute to levels of meaning, as can metaphor and symbol. By their very nature, images can suggest without being explicit, in that one has to “read” the image, to interpret it. A flower is only a flower, or is it? Different flowers can mean different things: A daffodil is not a rose, a rose is not a begonia. Red roses aren’t white roses, either. Literary and cultural traditions can add another interpretive complexity to meaning. In these cases, images become something more—symbols. Think Wars of the Roses! Metaphors, too—by their very nature, complexity of meaning is unavoidable. They are, after all, in the business of directly comparing two unlike things. How can they not be complex? Again, though, nothing new there.

So. Language itself, syntax, imagery, metaphor and symbol: All contribute to and make inevitable multiple meanings in a poem. But is that all? Levels of meaning, as a concept and application, must itself mean more than grammar and literary techniques. There must be something more structured, more profound, mustn’t there?

Well, yes. Certainly structure itself can contribute. Think, for example, of the villanelle. All those repetitions, at once the same and slightly varied, result in not only a beautiful music but in a beautiful complexity of meaning, too. But that’s only part of the story. Poems that incorporate both lyric and narrative elements, not to mention simultaneous thematic concerns and what we might call multiple “worlds,” are poems with deeply textured and even seemingly contradictory intentions. To say they’re complex is understatement of the first order.

Now let’s actually look at a poem—this one, from the collection Seven Ways to Prune a Grapefruit, by Arkansas poet Johnny Wink, titled “Slow, However, His Marches Be”:

There at the poetry reading, about to read
A poem about The White Rabbit, I asked my small
Audience how many of them had known The White
Rabbit and only several had, a fact that made me
Strangely sad. I say “strangely” because, Time
Gets bent on marching on. The White Rabbit went
Down in the raw, dark, drizzly heart of November
Seven years ago, and, for God’s sake, this is
A college, and it’s all about marching them through—
Students coming and going and going and coming, trickling
In and out of your life the way leave-takers make for
The busy door of this reading. Of course only
A handful knew The White Rabbit! Get a grip.
I’ll get a grip alright. Next year, I’ll try out for
The marching band. I’ll get Ouida Keck to give
Me tuba lessons. I’ll play tuba in the band.

I’ll get a grip. On that tuba so when Time,
Famous for marching on, goes marching on by
The marching band, I’ll clout the bastard with
The well-gripped tuba Ouida Keck will have
Taught me to play. And, as Time lies there,
Cindery on the field, I’ll say, “What then, bitch?”
Unless my guess is wrong, though, Time will get back up,
Maybe laughing, and doubtlessly go marching on.

*

The first thing one notices about this poem is its down-to-earth, direct, colloquial language and, thus, its speaking voice. At first glance, it doesn’t seem particularly complex, let alone its meaning having levels. It comes off as an intimate self-exhortation: the phrase “get a grip,” so colloquial it’s clichéd, occurring no less than three times. This is deceptive.

The second thing one notices is the wry humor it displays. Subtle in the first stanza, it surfaces fully in the second. The whole notion of “getting a grip” by learning to play—of all instruments!—a tuba in a marching band is really very funny, its over-the-top humor serving to set off and emphasize the actual serious issues the speaker is confronting: the apparent death of someone—probably a fellow teacher nicknamed The White Rabbit, itself funny—the relentless march of Time (which outmarches even the marching band); mortality—The White Rabbit’s, the speaker’s own and by extension all of ours, and its corollary, the slow erosion of our selves in memory.

So, in this poem, complexity of meaning resides in the deceptively everyday language, in the smokescreen of a self-deprecating humor and in the imagery. But even more, the levels of meaning inherent to the poem are embedded in the narrative elements, in the multiple thematic concerns, and in the “worlds” it incorporates. There are several: that of the fairy tale (in this case, Alice in Wonderland), poetry readings, music (marching bands), academia, and science—physics (the nature of time, implied black hole).

How’s that for a complex web of realities? Add to these the ironic title—whose marches are slow? The speaker’s? The dead White Rabbit’s? Contradictorily, Time’s?—and Wink’s poem exemplifies those levels of meaning English teachers like to go on about. That the speaker’s wry humor is both a coping mechanism and an ironic way of emphasizing the seriousness of the poem’s central thematic concerns is on display from the beginning.

Like The White Rabbit, poetry is elusive—so much so that the audience is “small” and “leave-takers make for/The busy door of this reading.” Talk about connotation! Consider how much that one word, “busy,” conveys. We laugh at such oblique tips of the hat to reality, but we also know it often is a painful one. To make matters worse, few of the audience “had known The White/ Rabbit,” which makes the speaker sad—“strangely so,” given the bending of Time as it marches on. (That “Gets bent” is also a pejorative colloquial expression should not be lost on us; certainly it isn’t on the poet.) That he is referring to the one who had died (“went/ Down”—our black hole) seven years earlier is obvious. But what if he also is referring to The White Rabbit of Wonderland? What if few in the audience had even read it? Again, complexity. Levels of meaning.

Then there is a turn. The speaker upbraids himself for any false expectations he might have had of his audience, which is of course comprised of students. Analogous to those leaving the reading, they come and go, “trickling/ In and out of your life…” Why should he think they would have known The White Rabbit, dead already for seven years? “Get a grip,” he commands himself, and beautifully opens the second stanza with “I’ll get a grip alright.” Besides the obvious emphasis and transition the repetition provides, it also leaves us suspecting that in fact he won’t. Not really.

Accordingly, stanza two, while more overtly humorous, is also edgy. The very absurdity of getting a grip by playing a tuba in that marching band, not to mention the offbeat name, Ouida Keck, contributes a certain shrillness in tone, which the language picks up on: “I’ll clout the bastard,” “What then, bitch?” Funny, yes. But even more, the humor and the edginess make manifest the speaker’s own deep sorrows—for the loss of a colleague and probable friend; for the gulf in time between his memories and the total unknowingness of the students; for the plight of poetry; for the albatross of mortality; and for the unstoppable march of time:

Unless my guess is wrong, though, Time will get back up,
Maybe laughing, and doubtlessly go marching on.

And so will we. Those last two lines are an apt description of the poem itself. “Doubtlessly,” both in the sense of implacability and without doubt, not only will Time rise, dust itself off and, laughing, move on, but so will we, the readers, after finishing “Slow, However, His Marches Be.” And so, too, the poet silently hopes, will his poem.

What makes this poem so memorable is its gutsiness in approach and subject, its grace under pressure, and its honesty—all three of which demand a certain complexity of meaning, of levels of emotion and thought. Despite the hint of false bravado in the face of loss, mortality and unstoppable Time, we come away somehow uplifted, if not by the truth of those enormities, then by the very human balancing of their contradictory effects in the poem, and by extension in all our lives. We weep, but we also endure. And we celebrate our human capacity to endure. Such are the polarities of a complex life, and of complex poems.

Such poems are like layered birthday cakes. Each layer can be coated differently. One might be lathered in strawberry jam, one in whipped cream, another in raspberry. Each layer thus will have its own unique taste, but they all will merge in a collective taste, too. So it is with levels of meaning in a poem—certainly in Johnny Wink’s wonderful poem. And, too, besides the separate tasty layers of the cake, there is the cake itself, that baked solidity. Likewise, in the end, there is the language and the definitive structure of the poem. That equally wrought solidity. That artful enterprise.

While poems might at times leave us feeling desolate and abandoned on the rocky shore of the opaque, they more often are like wild tangles of driftwood left behind by the tides—raw material ready for sifting and shaping (much like the ingredients of those birthday cakes). Like Pound and Eliot and Stevens, who so often succeeded in shaping poems into an accessible, shimmering art, surely Johnny Wink has shaped this poem with intelligence, insight, skill and honesty into something with textured levels of meaning. Finishing it, one can only say, Please, I beg you, Johnny, more, more …

Ω
George Drew is the author of The View from Jackass Hill, 2010 winner of the X. J. Kennedy Poetry Prize, Texas Review Press, which also has just published his chapbook, Down & Dirty (2015), and will his New & Selected, Pastoral Habits, in 2016. His sixth collection, Fancy’s Orphan, is due out in January, 2017, from Tiger Bark Press. He is the winner of the 2014 St. Petersburg Review poetry contest. Originally from Mississippi, he lives in upstate New York.