Everyone knows Yeats’s preference for “the quarrel with ourselves” as a source of poetry superior to the rhetoric made from “the quarrel with others.” I’ve said several times in print that I prefer poems that are straightforward to poems that wear a “mask.” So it occurs to me to quarrel with myself on this theme, to perform what Chairman Mao called “autocritique.” I doubt the result will be poetry, but it may bring some clarity to a subject poorly demarcated and seldom well thought out.
I’ve noticed that people are more likely to cooperate with a directive placed indirectly than directly. A direct recommendation or command is likely to be resisted. But if the suggestion is indirect, is coded, there’s a greater chance of a positive response. Hence the advertising industry’s “hidden persuaders.” Keats’s rejection of poems that “have designs on us” doesn’t reference specific titles, but we can all think of examples of texts that seem coercive, seductive, or designed to foster complicity. In truth, almost every poem has this aspect, but the degree varies. Rarely does the poet “spit in the eye” of readers and attempt to alienate them. And even this can sometimes be analyzed as an elaborate, reverse-psychology method of commanding assent. And make no mistake: reading isn’t a purely pacific process but instead a species of sparring or outflanking, an effort to neutralize the resistance that we all bring to any phenomenon, actual or broadcast or written, that we encounter. In view of all this, indirect suggestion is probably a cleverer way of securing reader endorsement than straightforwardness.
Any art, and certainly poetry, will include a ludic or game-playing dimension. Decipherment is fun and challenging in the same way that the Times crossword puzzle is. The poem that just lays all the cards on the table doesn’t offer us the Scrabble-Chess-Go component of a conscious art and won’t stimulate as much adrenaline as those games do.
Constructing “masks” and devising metaphors able to suggest a subtext requires ingenuity; and ingenuity deserves praise, even if it isn’t quite in the same league as magnanimity.
The reality is that many writers have things they urgently wish to convey and yet dare not out of fear that their concerns will be ridiculed or condemned. Indirection allows them to communicate their sense of a topic while providing an escape clause. If ridicule or condemnation is aimed at the subtext of a coded work, authors can always evade and say, “That’s not what I meant. You’re reading things into it.” Of course the disguise is less courageous than going for broke, but it isn’t realistic to rely on courage in human affairs, given that it is the least widespread of all admirable qualities.
In countries where censorship is the rule and imprisonment a possible consequence of publishing texts critical of the regime, masked or metaphoric treatments of political topics is the only safe way to take them up. Meanwhile, there are laws against libel everywhere, and coded communication allows for the expression of libelous sentiments, yet without the risk of prosecution.
Oscar Wilde: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell the truth.” Why “least himself when he talks in his own person”? I suppose what Wilde means is that the public persona is tidied up for public consumption. If you meet strangers on the street, chances are they will behave in a friendly fashion. But if they get behind the wheel of a car, the relative anonymity thereby provided frees them to behave as aggressively and rudely as they like; and if they like being aggressive and rude so much, that must be who they really are. The true person hidden away is like the picture of Dorian Gray, not nearly so presentable as the man who shows up for tea in his morning coat. Using masks allows us to present ourselves as we actually are; it gives an unidealized portrait of our actual natures, something we generally have difficulty discovering, either to ourselves or to others. And if one value of art is to awaken us to truth, then masks are a convenient avenue to the truth about self. Considering this dark side, we could adapt Eliot’s comment and say, “After such self-knowledge, what forgiveness?” But without self-knowledge, we don’t know what needs forgiving. Better first search out the truth, and then see about the forgiveness problem afterwards.
Finally, for all that metaphoric texts point us toward a partly concealed meaning, they can never do so with 100% accuracy. There will always be room for interpretation and doubt. Readings of a truth told “slant” will vary from reader to reader. Hence the text takes on the aspect of an oracle, vague, suggestive, not fully circumscribed by semantic boundaries. The poem becomes a Rorschach test, its weird, tortoise-shell symmetries productive of multiple responses, according to each observer. Engaging in this process we become like those who, as described by Horatio, listened to and tried to interpret Ophelia’s disjunctive glossolalia (Hamlet, IV, 5): “They aim at it,/And botch the words up fit to their own thought.” And this vague, cloudlike, metamorphic kind of textual encounter is for many readers the esthetic experience, one that outweighs all others, even the apprehension of memorable lines like, “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”