Many Meanings Can Have One Word: Sigurd Burckhardt

Under the headings pun, rhyme, metaphor, and meter I have in fact already been discussing an aspect of poetic language which, since Empson, no treatment of poetics can afford to ignore: ambiguity. For Empson, ambiguity became all but synonymous with the essential quality of poetry; it meant complexity, associative and connotative richness, texture, and the possibility of irony. The ambiguous word proliferated like a vine, wove or revealed hidden strands between the most various and distinct spheres of our prosaically ordered world. By exploiting the ambiguity of words the poet could ironically undercut the surface meanings of his statements, could avail himself fully of the entire field of meanings which a word has and is. I want to shift the stress of Empson’s analysis a little. He made us aware that one word can–and in great poetry commonly does–have many meanings; I would rather insist on the converse, that many meanings can have one word. For the poet, the ambiguous word is the crux of the problem of creating a medium for him to work in. If meanings are primary and words only their signs, then ambiguous words are false; each meaning should have its word, as each sound should have its letter. But if the reverse is true and words are primary–if, that is, they are the corporeal entities the poet requires–then ambiguity is something quite different: it is the fracturing of a pristine unity by the analytic conceptualizations of prose. The poet must assume that where there is one word there must, in some sense, be unity of meaning, no matter what prose usage may have done to break it. The pun is the extreme form of this assumption, positing unity of meaning even for purely accidental homophones, such as the sound shifts of a language will happen to produce.

Ambiguity, then, becomes a test case for the poet; insofar as he can vanquish it–not by splitting the word, but by fusing its meanings–he has succeeded in making language into a true medium; insofar as it vanquishes him, he must abdicate his position as a “maker.” I would say, therefore, that he does not primarily exploit the plurisignations of words, as though they were a fortunate accident; rather he accepts, even seeks out, their challenge, because he knows that in his encounter with them the issue of his claim is finally joined and decided. A pun may be a mere play, a rhyme a mere jingle, even a metaphor only an invitation to conceptual comparisons; true ambiguities are another matter. With them it is not a question of taking two words or meanings and showing how, in some sense, they are one, but rather of taking one word and showing that it is more than a potpourri of the meanings we have a mind to attach to it. Since the poet’s credo must be the opening of St. John: “In the beginning was the Word,” he meets the temptation of meaning ultimately in ambiguity.

Sigurd Burckhardt, “The Poet as Fool and Priest” (1956)

Some of this, in its talk about meaning and intention, may read as a bit naive, but I think that’s mistaken. Rather than positing some Platonic meaning that a work aims at, one locked inside the poet’s head, I think Burckhardt means to talk about how there is inescapably the notion of some intent on the creator’s part that a reader has to deal with. There is some particular instantiation of meaning that a poet was working with. The “pristine unity” is private, maybe even an illusion. Meanings may be primary, but they are still private in their particular essence, even if it is by them that we are able to live and function.┬áThe writer’s intent is not decipherable or recoverable, but at the same time we do have the fact that such an intent existed at the time of creation. If “intent” and “meaning” are too specific, just take it that there was some unified surplus in the poet’s mind at the time. Some critics try to externalize that surplus onto historical surroundings, about which we know far more; other critics try to minimize the role of that surplus by exploding the amount of sheer ambiguity in the words themselves. Yet the collateral effect is also to dampen a sense of unity. Despite the clear attempts made by critics to reconstruct a more complex unity from the proliferations of meaning, there is a point where such unities are no longer comprehensible or plausible to a lay reader, and so multiplicity rules over unity.

Another irony is how some of those obsessive close reader critics complained about the advent of theory and other cultural readings, as though there were limits to what ambiguity could suggest, when in fact the Ambiguists had opened the door to such diversity in the first place. By positing that any “pristine unity” lay precisely in the multiplicity of meaning, they abdicated their hegemonic throne, a la Richard II. Theorists then made a rear-guard action by reclassifying where the “pristine unity” could be, outside the realm of the text-in-isolation. I love much of the work of the Ambiguists, but they should have seen it coming. They were climbing Jacob’s ladder.

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