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Poetry and the Transmission of Errors

09/05/2013 16:15 BST | Updated 09/07/2013 10:12 BST

The Lost Reader, denied their guiding contexts, often behaves in a way which presents a little simulacrum of the kind of codal incompetence experienced in clinical psychosis. The weird thing is that we can discuss it in exactly the same semiotic terms. This little analogy is somewhat frivolous, so please don't think that I'm taking the subject of psychosis lightly. In my line of work, I can assure you, we don't do that; it has a habit of coming up. Poets often find the doors of perception easier to throw open than properly close again.

While this taxonomy is obscure - the nature of these semiotic pathologies will be alarmingly familiar to most readers. I borrowed it from a rather obscure paper by Stepan Davtian on Sign Malfunction in Psychotic Reality - it really was a very slack evening.

These states can basically arise through either incompetence and interference on one or both sides. This is a disease of degree. At its worst, the poet is essentially speaking in Klingon, while the reader nods in deep misunderstanding. More often, though, the rules have not been made clear on the one side, and another set of rules have been too precipitately applied on the other - so we have one side playing draughts and the other chess. The ability of humans to willfully sustain such reciprocal misapprehension is a thing of wonder.

I once had a ten-minute conversation on The Prelude with a friend of mine. We talked of its longueurs, we talked about its bright passages; we talked about its turgid lines, its pointless repetitions, its lyric grandeur and its overblown rhetoric. Had it not been for him whistling a passage by way of illustration, we likely would have been none the wiser that I was talking about Wordsworth's Prelude - and he was talking about Wagner's. We'd have been perfectly content with the whole exchange.

So - a pathology of the bewildered reader.

Cryptosemia - to read signs not apparent to others.

We often see this with readers who believe poets have hidden messages in their poems. This is the kind of reader who has been taught - often in school - that meaning is something that poets deliberately and sadistically withhold, and that what we have to do to the poem is ... batter a confession out of it. For example - as you know, a lot of numerological frenzy surrounds Shakespeare's Sonnets. One bright spark has found a cryptogram in one of the sonnets, which reveals that KIT MARLOWE WROTE THIS. By more or less identical methods I also derived the phrase PARIS HILTON WROTE THIS, and indeed I KILLED WILL backwards.

Importantly, and here we see the power of the 'permissive context' - this nonsense is largely fuelled and sanctioned by the real Elizabethan obsession with numerology, which has also licensed the kind of thing Helen Vendler indulges in her theory of Key Words in the Sonnets, which I am convinced exists nowhere other than in the brain of Helen Vendler. Watching the Vendler analyse a bad poem is often like watching a brain-surgeon dissect a hamburger. It's unedifying and makes me feel queasy. It is, I suppose the classic pitfall of scholarly readings, where a text - however bad - will be obliged to live up to the high expectations of the often superior intelligence reading it. But, y'know - if you read poetry slowly enough and carefully enough, you will find many things that are not there.

Don Paterson will be speaking at this year's HowTheLightGetsIn, the world's largest philosophy and music festival held in association with the Huff Post UK. For more information, see www.howthelightgetsin.org