Tag Archives: William Empson

Incomprehensible Verse

When you spend time – as I try to do – reading poems of all sorts and varieties, you are bound to come across the odd one or two that don’t seem to make any sense.  Sometimes, although you can’t really make head nor tail of it, a poem will still make a striking impact upon you.  This was the case, for me, when I encountered William Empson’s poem “Missing Dates”.

Empson (1906-84) was an eccentric genius.  Having been a child prodigy at mathematics, he suddenly switched to literature and – at the age of twenty-four – became famous as the author of “Seven Types of Ambiguity”.  This was regarded as the most important work of literary criticism of its time.  In the 1968 film “The Magus”, you first see Michael Caine (ridiculously miscast as a student of literature) reading a book.  You then get a close-up of the title of the book: “Seven Types of Ambiguity”.  That this film turned out to be one of the worst films ever made is beside the point; it shows how well-known Empson’s book had become.

The poem “Missing Dates” has a compelling first stanza:

Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
It is not the effort nor the failure tires.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

After four more compelling, yet puzzling, stanzas, it concludes:

It is the poems you have lost, the ills
From missing dates, at which the heart expires.
Slowly the poison the whole bloodstream fills.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

With my own poem “The Wrong Side”, I was, originally, trying to replicate the compelling, rhythmic repetition of “Missing Dates”.  It finished up being nothing like as complex as Empson’s poem (which was, technically, a “villanelle”), and the only repetitive line is the final line of each stanza.  The only other similarity it has to “Missing Dates” is that the meaning of it might remain obscure to some readers.  I’m not too bothered about that.  I quite like the poem as it stands; and I know what it means, if no-one else does.

The Wrong Side:

Invisible barriers are broken.
Nemesis governs the tide.
Dreams of chaos haunted the night.
I got out of bed – the wrong side.

Pathways forged in the ether.
Laws unwritten applied.
Tossing and turning in torment,
I got out of bed – the wrong side.

Silent entities rule these spheres.
Their will cannot be denied.
Visions of love prove deceptive.
I got out of bed – the wrong side.

 

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