“Once a poem is made available to the public, the right of interpretation belongs to the reader,” young Sylvia Plath wrote to her mother as she reflected on her first poem. What is true of a poem is true of any work of art: Art transforms us not with what it contains but with what it creates in us — the constellation of interpretations, revelations, and emotional truths illuminated — which, of course, is why the rise of the term “content” to describe creative output online has been one of the most corrosive developments in contemporary culture. A poem — or an essay, or a painting, or a song — is not its “content”; it transforms us precisely by what cannot be contained, by what is received and interpreted.
That’s what Ursula K. Le Guin explores in a magnificent piece titled “Teasing Myself Out of Thought,” originally given as a talk at Oregon’s Blue River Gathering and later adapted into an essay included in Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000–2016, with a Journal of a Writer’s Week (public library) — the endlessly rewarding volume that gave us Le Guin on the operating instructions for life.
Reflecting on the framing questions her hosts had posed for the talk — “Where is a writer to find strength and hope in this world? What is a writer’s calling in this time and place? What work will make a difference? And how might we create a community of purpose?” — Le Guin writes:
I’m embarrassed because I come out with the same response to each question. Where am I to find strength and hope in this world? In my work, in trying to write well. What’s a writer’s calling, now or at any time? To write, to try to write well. What work will make a difference? Well-made work, honest work, writing well written. And how might we create a community of purpose? I can’t say. If our community of purpose as writers doesn’t lie in our shared interest in and commitment to writing as well as we can, then it must lie in something outside our work — a goal or end, a message, an effect, which may be most desirable, but which makes the writing merely a means to an end that lies outside the work, the vehicle of a message. And this is not what writing is to me. It is not what makes me a writer.
Le Guin notes that since our school days, we’ve been taught that writing is a means to a practical end — the end of transmitting a message — which much writing indeed is, from memos to love letters to tweets. And yet, she argues, a work of art — be it written or otherwise — bequeaths a gift of meaning beyond messaging:
The kids ask me, “When you write a story, do you decide on the message first or do you begin with the story and put the message in it?”No, I say, I don’t. I don’t do messages. I write stories and poems. That’s all. What the story or the poem means to you — its “message” to you — may be entirely different from what it means to me.The kids are often disappointed, even shocked. I think they see me as irresponsible. I know their teachers do.They may be right. Maybe all writing, even literature, is not an end in itself but a means to an end other than itself. But I couldn’t write stories or poetry if I thought the true and central value of my work was in a message it carried, or in providing information or reassurance, offering wisdom, giving hope. Vast and noble as these goals are, they would decisively limit the scope of the work; they would interfere with its natural growth and cut it off from the mystery which is the deepest source of the vitality of art.A poem or story consciously written to address a problem or bring about a specific result, no matter how powerful or beneficent, has abdicated its first duty and privilege, its responsibility to itself. Its primary job is simply to find the words that give it its right, true shape. That shape is its beauty and its truth.
It is precisely in the lacuna between message and meaning that art is co-created by artist and audience, by writer and reader. This, of course, is what Susan Sontag had in mind when she presciently admonished, half a century ago, against what we stand to lose when we treat cultural material as “content.” Le Guin illustrates this notion with a simple, elegant analogy:
A well-made clay pot — whether it’s a terra-cotta throwaway or a Grecian urn — is nothing more and nothing less than a clay pot. In the same way, to my mind, a well-made piece of writing is simply what it is, lines of words.As I write my lines of words, I may try to express things I think are true and important. That’s what I’m doing right now in writing this essay. But expression is not revelation… Art reveals something beyond the message. A story or poem may reveal truths to me as I write it. I don’t put them there. I find them in the story as I work.And other readers may find other truths in it, different ones. They’re free to use the work in ways the author never intended.
Looking to the great tragedies of ancient Greece, which continue to slake readers’ thirst for meaning millennia later and to reveal different layers of moral truth to each generation, Le Guin observes that “those works were written out of that mystery, the deep waters, the wellspring of art.” With an eye to Keats’s notion of “negative capability” and to the wisdom on Lao Tzu (whose Tao Te Ching Le Guin has amplified in an exquisite translation), she writes:
A poem of the right shape will hold a thousand truths. But it doesn’t say any of them.
Always the artisan of nuance, Le Guin is careful to point out that she isn’t advocating for the “Art for Art’s sake” trope, which she considers flawed in its implication that art is solipsistic and without any responsibility to its audience. She writes:
Art does change people’s minds and hearts. And an artist is a member of a community: the people who may see, hear, read her work. My first responsibility is to my craft, but if what I write may affect other people, obviously I have a responsibility to them too. Even if I don’t have a clear idea of what the meaning of my story is and only begin to glimpse it as I write — still, I can’t pretend it isn’t there.
This sidewise glimpse of truth, Le Guin suggests, is far more effective than the blunt badgering of preaching. Of course, Emily Dickinson knew this when she famously exhorted her reader to “tell all the truth but tell it slant,” and astrophysicist and novelist Janna Levin knew this a century and a half later, when she wrote of truth obliquely illuminated in her stunning novel about Alan Turing, Kurt Gödel, and the legacy of the Vienna Circle: “Maybe truth is just like that.
You can see it, but only out of the corner of your eye.” Le Guin considers the moral reason for letting the reader glimpse the truth out of the corner of her own eye:
What my reader gets out of my pot is what she needs, and she knows her needs better than I do. My only wisdom is knowing how to make pots. Who am I to preach?No matter how humble the spirit it’s offered in, a sermon is an act of aggression.
Drawing an elegant contrast between the Inner Preacher and the Inner Teacher — a contrast of excruciating necessity in our golden age of self-righteousness aggressively delivered — Le Guin adds:
“The great Way is very simple; merely forgo opinion,” says the Taoist, and I know it’s true — but there’s a preacher in me who just longs to cram my lovely pot with my opinions, my beliefs, with Truths. And if my subject’s a morally loaded one, such as Man’s relationship to Nature — well, that Inner Preacher’s just itching to set people straight and tell them how to think and what to do, yes, Lord, amen!I have more trust in my Inner Teacher. She is subtle and humble because she hopes to be understood. She contains contradictory opinions without getting indigestion. She can mediate between the arrogant artist self who mutters, “I don’t give a damn if you don’t understand me,” and the preacher self who shouts, “Now hear this!” She doesn’t declare truth, but offers it. She takes a Grecian urn and says, “Look closely at this, study it, for study will reward you; and I can tell you some of the things that other people have found in this pot, some of the goodies you too may find in it.”
And yet, Le Guin notes, even the Inner Teacher isn’t to be put in charge of meaning — for, “after all, she’s the one who taught the kids to expect a message.” She considers instead the ultimate job and responsibility of the artist:
My job is to keep the meaning completely embodied in the work itself, and therefore alive and capable of change. I think that’s how an artist can best speak as a member of a moral community: clearly, yet leaving around her words that area of silence, that empty space, in which other and further truths and perceptions can form in other minds.
Complement this fragment of Le Guin’s altogether glorious Words Are My Matter with Wassily Kandinsky on the three responsibilities of the artist and James Baldwin on the artist’s responsibility to society, then revisit Le Guin on being a “man,” the sacredness of public libraries, imaginative storytelling as a force of freedom, what beauty really means, where good ideas come from, and writing as falling in love.