Thursday, November 1, 2012

Leonardo, Lady Antebellum, and the power of ambiguity

True confession: I get unreasonably happy every time Lady Antebellum's pop/country hit 'Need You Now' comes on the radio.  There isn't a whole lot to the song, but it's utterly perfect for what it is.

It's a narrative song, or at least an implied narrative, but all the particularities have been stripped away, leaving nothing but the painfully common situation of a late-night phone call to an ex.  Not everyone has actually been in that situation, but I think that most of us at least know somebody who's been there.  The song allows space for the listener to flesh out the characters from their own experience, and it doesn't supply any details that could contradict whatever faces or personalities come to mind.

As a matter of fact, the details are even more universal than the storyline:

"Picture perfect memories scattered all around the floor..."

"It's a quarter after one, and I'm all alone..."

"I wonder if I ever cross your mind..."

Instead of specifying the unique characteristics of this particular situation, the song fleshes out the universal human experience of time, memory, and loneliness.  The universally shared nature of these experiences is what forges a re-connection between the two estranged lovers; it also forges a connection with the listener.

As for the specifics, when they are supplied by the imagination, they're actually alive.

I enjoy the song for its own sake, but what makes me positively giddy is the reminder that poetry, too, can participate in the techniques that Leonardo used to make the Mona Lisa so compelling.

Every time you look at her famously mysterious smile, she seems to have a different expression.  This is because in this richly detailed portrait, Leonardo very carefully painted the corners of her eyes and mouth shadowy and ambiguous.  The viewer's mind must supply her precise expression.  Hence, the image that we see is always changing, and always strikes a deep chord.  She looks alive, because we're really seeing a projection of our own living souls.  Leonardo's genius was in compelling the viewer to see much more than he actually painted; much more than it would be possible to paint.

I tried to play with this effect in my poem about leaving the hospital.  My goal was to leave enough ambiguous space for the reader to fill in the specifics, while providing enough detail to make the total picture as vivid as possible.

The concept initially came to me while praying for a friend, upon hearing that she was at the hospital with an unexpectedly dying loved one.  While there's no such thing as an easy time for a tragedy, it struck me as particularly awful that this would happen at a time so full of other transitions.  As I prayed for peace amid all the painful changes, an image came to my mind of her walking out of the hospital.

I thought of the disequilibrium that I experience every time I leave a hospital. Whether I have been ill, or have had a baby, whether I am visiting a loved one, or one who I wish that I had loved better, walking out of the hospital is always the same experience, and it always leaves me feeling a little bit dizzy.  Always, I am alive, and always, that fact is suddenly bewildering.

So I wanted to write a poem that was not about any one particular hospital-leaving experience, but which could evoke memories of all sorts of different such experiences.  And I wanted to do it with nitty-gritty sensory experiences, rather than with philosophical abstractions.

As it turns out, that was much easier said than done.  As I tested it out on friends and family, I discovered that a lot of the details that I'd picked out weren't really universal at all.  Green vinyl plays a big role in my hospital memories, but that didn't strike chord with anyone else.  However, as my mother pointed out, every hospital really ought to have sleek white floors... and that image has more poetic possibilities, anyway.  =)  This poem ended up requiring more editing than any other I've ever written--and I may go back and rewrite yet again, based on your feedback.

In any case, whether or not this poem ever achieves its intended effect, the writing process itself was very much worthwhile.  It allowed me to redeem all sorts of intense experiences, and also to clarify my poetic vocation.  By painting the universal while leaving space for ambiguity, poetry can make empathy possible for the reader, and safe for the writer.

And that's something that's worth a lifetime of rewrites.

No comments:

Post a Comment