We’re writing riddles at the moment at my children’s Poetry Club. We’ve read some riddles together, and attempted to solve them, and the children have got a lot of pleasure out of ‘getting it’, particularly when they ‘got it’ faster than I did.
Riddles have been a sub-genre of poetry since poetry started being written down and presumably for centuries before that. The Exeter Book is a C10th codex of Anglo-Saxon poetry, and among the works contained within it are nearly a hundred riddles. Riddling seems to have been more than just a pastime for the Anglo-Saxons, however. It seems to have, at least in the works that we are left with, been indicative of the way they liked thinking. In Old English there are at least eighteen different words to describe aspects of thought: a fact which seems to indicate that the Anglo-Saxons valued and gained pleasure from cognitive effort.
|The Exeter Riddle Statue, in the centre of Exeter, is by Michael Fairfax, |
and features eight of the Exeter Book Riddles... with solutions for those who
can work out where to find them.
The kenning, for example, the compound noun which is characteristic of Anglo-Saxon as well as Norse poetry, could be considered a micro-riddle in its own right. Take the kenning ‘whale-road’ (from Beowulf). This is not an obvious or direct description of the sea. It is created in the same way that riddles are – by circumlocution, by describing something in a way that makes the reader look at it as something else. It requires some cognitive effort to decode, as it brings together two semantic domains, and requires the reader to make connections which then yield meaning. But yielding the meaning isn’t the only point – what’s also crucial is that, having worked out that ‘whale road’ is referring to the sea, the reader (or listener) will now have a whole new way of experiencing the concept that is the sea. Wait! I hear you cry – you’re talking about common or garden metaphor, here, aren’t you? Well, yes.
Using a workshop idea from The Poetry Book for Primary Schools (Wilson & Hughes, The Poetry Society, 1998), I got the children to look really closely at an apple. I then asked them to tell me something about the apple, something that described it but used words as if they were describing something else. They came up with some great descriptions: perfectly designed to mislead a reader, but at the same time, extremely accurately observed. They loved the trickery of it all, the way they were disguising the apple with words, the way they were making the reader expend effort on their creation.
Riddles are very valuable when trying to get children to write poetry. Because riddles force the writer to make their readers do some work, the writer has to look at the object of the riddle in an entirely fresh way, in other words, defamiliarise it. But in riddles, this defamiliarisation needs to follow certain rules – the descriptions have got to seem strange, but be logical when ‘solved’. It’s all about holding two ideas about something in your head at the same time: our apple became a person wearing a pointy hat, with a freckled face, and flesh that wept when pierced by sharp white knives. Metaphors galore – and the children didn’t even realise they were creating them.
All this riddling fun set me thinking, though. Riddles are very much a sub-genre of poetry, and, within a contemporary context, a very distinct one. Unlike most poetry, riddles are about one thing. They can be solved. The cognitive effort expended is rewarded by measurable success. A nice mental tick. ü That’s not the case with other poetry: but there are many readers who don’t like poetry just because of this. These are the readers who think that all poetry is a kind of riddle: there is a ‘hidden meaning’ that the poet has wrapped in wordy flim-flam, and all they have to do is peel off and dissect the outer coverings to find what it really means. These are the people who are made uneasy by the fact that a poem doesn’t have to mean anything, it just is. It’s just there for the reader to make their own meaning. Basically, we poets make them make all this cognitive effort and then won’t tell them whether they’re right or wrong because, basically, we can’t. And if we could, we wouldn’t want to.
My sister, who’s a maths teacher, is made really uncomfortable by not being told what to think about a poem. An acquaintance who loves crosswords feels he is being cheated if a poem’s deliberate ambiguities will not allow him to settle on an interpretation. He reads a lot of poetry, really wants to love it, but finds himself frustrated when he can’t pin down what the writer intended. He’s not happy that the poet’s intent might have been to make him decide.
Ask a poet what it means and you’ll get short shrift. You might get a bit of background, or an admission that they are addressing a certain theme, but you’re unlikely to get anything more specific. There is an anecdote which tells how Robert Browning was once asked the meaning of one of his more’ difficult’ poems. ‘Madam,' he is said to have replied, ‘When I wrote that, only God and I knew what it meant. Now only God knows.’ And T.S. Eliot said ‘What a poem means is as much what it means to others as what it means to the author’. I’ve heard that Carol Ann Duffy, when visiting schools, refuses point-blank to answer questions about what a poem means. And I think all three of them are right.
But, I wonder – as poets, poets who presumably would like more people to enjoy poetry, do we need to think a bit more about this? Are these readers wrong? Are they just not ‘sophisticated’ enough? Or are we being too demanding? I wouldn’t want to write poems where the ‘meaning’ is hung out like washing on a line, because what I value in poems I read is the way that I am a co-constructor of meaning, the way that a poem doesn’t think I’m thick, leaves me space to make up my own mind. I don’t want my poems to be solved like a riddle, and then discarded from the mind. But – and it’s a big but – I want more people to enjoy reading poetry as much as I do. I also want them to buy my book.
Theories of literariness place cognitive effort and schema refreshment high in their characterising factors. Riddles might be seen to fulfil those criteria. But in addition, polysemy, ambiguity, space for each reader to inhabit a poem and own it for him or herself are also vital.
I think it would be fair to say that the majority of people don't read contemporary poetry. And presumably that’s because they don’t enjoy it. And a lot of them don’t enjoy it because they don’t understand it. And they don’t understand it because they can’t work out what it means. And that’s because they’re not really meant to – at least, not in the sense that they expect.
So maybe we need to get people to move on from thinking of poetry as a glorified riddle. We need them to value their own contribution to the writer-text-reader relationship. But how we’re going to do that, I don’t know. Any ideas?