Three muses of poetry: Ambiguity, abstract, and absurd 
By Yogesh Patel

A poet recently repeated the age-old grumble about a conundrum of ambiguity in poetry! The glossary of terms at the Poetry Foundation describes ambiguity as “a word, statement, or situation with two or more possible meanings.” There are mainly two types of ambiguities: Lexical and syntactic. However, some seven can be categorized as a metaphor (two things alike), reversed metaphor (two meanings resolved into one), two ideas connected to a single context (here in Jussawalla’s poem there are more than two), a union of two or more meanings (as happens in the poem, the accident and other international news of the day collapse into the ordinary interest of the day, namely the local accident), poet finding a new idea in the middle of his expression (as in the third couplet beginning with ‘When I come home….’), the unknown thrown in for the reader to imagine the outcome (as in the last couplet in the poem), and two words that create a conflict of a status in poet’s mind (in this poem, it is the phrase ‘as far as’). Ambiguity is not good in business communication but it arises from removed commas, words with double meaning, the same word meaning unique two things with differing pronunciations- as in lexical ambiguity, or a complete sentence meaning distinctive things in a dissimilar context, as in syntactic ambiguity. 

There are as many expectations from poetry as there are definitions of it! Much of the poetry you see on social media is mediocre, as they lack courage. In the style of the Rupi Kaur phenomenon, they posture as strait-laced. Too obvious, or of direct narration. Lacking the tangents it can shoot off to, to make poetry more intriguing, complex, and challenging and to reveal multiple layers of meaning as a full experience. After all, life may look linear but is complicated and unpredictable. The experiences we encounter are not neatly arranged extracts. It is said that poetry paints, while a painting creates poetry. Painting has always focused on an experience, which can be simple or complex as in modern art, be it entrenched in cubism, metaphysical, surrealism, or realism. Standing in the art gallery in front of an abstract painting is for an experience, not for extracting the schoolbook logical meaning of every splash or choice of colours or apparition of any shape you may see. Complex poetry does that using the lexicon, style, forms, poetics, images, tones, and sounds. It deploys abstraction, ambiguity, and absurd as its handles to deliver the experience the poet wants, but may end up being different for the reader who brings their own contexts to the table. Yes, story-telling can exist in poetry—as you can see in Adil Jussawalla’s poem here—but it can be made of many narratives of images coming together or an event you want to be expressed. For a straightjacket telling, you have prose, but to celebrate the language rolling in its all elements or components as a lexicon or the syntax with the spoken facet, you need poetry. Hence, next time when you write straightforward content in a line of a poem or a stanza, find the tangents that thought, emotion and image have to offer.

Go to them and create an impression, adding similar poetic experiences elsewhere than the locale you started out with. Coalesce them with the correct choice of words, sentences, and diction. Such a tool allows varied suggestions, possibilities, allusions, implications, and senses. Abstraction in art is not about duplicating reality. Create an atmosphere and roam in it as a poet to capture a new paranormal world, not ever forgetting what your concept was. Think of abstraction not for the telling, but for the impact, which also delivers the raw sentiments you started with. Remember, the abstract words cannot be pictured. For example, love needs sounds, smell, colours, shapes, texture, tone, narratives to enhance, and images. A fragrance of a flower requires a picture, a picture of a flower has no such need. Hence, for any experience of that picture which is touchable, real image, and exciting, you will need to put it back in nature and make it engulfed in its essence, including its fragrance which gives its unique identity. 

Coming Home 

A horse has been led to the top of a tower in Prague, 

A puppy pushed under the wheels of a car. 

Someone is celebrating body parts in Tel Aviv 

And prison guards in Tehran. 

When I come home from work the wife says 

They floated boats in Hiroshima. 

I take down my atlas and look for Prague, Tel Aviv, 

Tehran. I don’t get as far as Hiroshima. 

At dinner I ask the wife if she knows anything about 

A puppy and a car and where it happened. 

Adil Jussawalla 

(from Mapping the Mind, Minding the Map) 

Absurd happens in literature when a poet dares to challenge the norms, revealing a conflict in a concept. While the Theatre of the Absurd raids the orthodoxy or doctrines, away from such narrow notions, in general, it examines contradictions. Here in this poem, while the world is busy with its serious conflicts of war, torture, and irrational behaviours with the broader impact on humanity—demonstrated by the poet’s news list—the irrelevant minor worry about a ‘puppy pushed under the wheels of a car’, both unrelated to him, absurdly becomes a focus of main concern. After the hard day’s work, just as the dinner takes precedence over all those horrendous, absurd, or amusing events, a local accident becomes more central. 

Understandably, this poem shows you, with ambiguity and juxtaposed narrations, how you can bring a wider canvas to vivid life, equally if you imagine how you can play with the lexical, syntactic, and structural aspects of poetics, involving rhymes, rhythms, forms, metaphors, similes, and more. It opens a world of options from your first drafts, which you may rush to get published. Even the simplest action of changing the perspective you have expressed in your poem, in finalizing it, can show you the arguments you could harbour in your concept and poem. Look at these lines by K. Satchidanandan, again from another poem appearing in ‘Mapping the Mind, Minding the Map’, a great anthology edited by Basudhara Roy and Jaydeep Sarangi for the Sahitya Akademi: 

A man walks with a door 

along the city street; 

he is looking for its house. 

Ambiguity is not the reality portrayed in the words here, but it is the essence and impact of the reality arising from the incongruously, rearranged images repurposing reality! Also, note how effectively poet uses the word ‘its’ and not ‘his’! Each word matters in poetry with its lexical implication. Here in ambiguity, it allows a concrete outcome to options available. Next time, look at the lines you have penned and change the perspectives to repurpose your magic in the poem. 

ISBN 9789355485137 

A Masterclass in Poetry 

Yogesh Patel received an MBE for literature in 2020. His latest collection of poems, The Rapids, is published by The London Magazine. Patel’s poem appears on the Poetry Wall of the Royal Society of Literature. His poem is to be launched aboard a NASA rocket to the moon to be archived there. His poem has been featured on the wall of Cambridge University’s Language Library. He runs Skylark Publications UK and a non-profit Word Masala project to promote SA diaspora literature. Extensively published, an award-winning poet, he has also received the Freedom of the City of London