A Case of Poetic Ambiguity

(Sunday, September 2, 2007, 2:12 a.m.)

copied from Myspace blog

"An old man in love is a flower in winter."

This is a line I've heard from a Carl Sandburg poem which I think is a maxim he heard elsewhere. But what does it mean? (Feel free to jump in if you have any insights I've missed.) Incidentally, the context in the poem I heard it in is not helpful in disambiguating the meaning.

Some interpretive possibilities I see (in approximately my ordering of supposed likely intent):
* To know true love at an old age is a rare and precious thing. The idea is that for a flower to actually have survived into winter is a miracle, so therefore is the prospect of an old man falling (and remaining) in love. Therefore, the old man's love is to be regarded as more beautiful and precious.
* Love in old age is a precarious, untrustworthy thing, likely to perish in the cold. Flowers don't tend to last long in the winter.
* Love in old age is futile because life is soon to be snuffed out like the life of that flower in winter.
* An old man in love is like a sailor that doesn't know how to curse: a virtual impossibility.

Being a romantic at heart, I favor the first interpretation, but the others seem plausible. The principle behind the ambiguity is worth noting here because it is illustrative of how misunderstandings may crop up in speech and writing. We are asked to view a "flower in winter" and, observing this, observe also that some property or properties of that flower are illustrative of some property or properties of "an old man in love". The trouble is that there are many and varied properties of that "flower in winter": fragility (or miraculous durability if we are to assume that the flower is a survivor in winter and not a doomed flower), rarity, beauty, the physical attributes of a flower (having petals, stem, and so forth), mortality (having a short season), etc. Some of the properties seem irrelevant to the "old man in love" (physical properties of the flower) and these we know to rule out as being the intended illumination of the metaphor. Fragility (or durability), rarity, or beauty, or some combination of these may be taken as the illuminating principles. But what different conclusions might be reached depending on what the focus is!

I tend to not like ambiguity overly much. (Well, okay, I like a good, which is to say bad, pun now and then.) And yet, I suppose a statement like "an old man in love is a flower in winter" is a perfectly non-contradictory statement. Life is a perfectly non-contradictory phenomenon. It is what is given; it cannot be otherwise than it is. Yet there are certainly many properties of life, each of which one might focus on in order to form conclusions and interpretations and evaluations. In that sense, life is both infinitely unambiguous and ambiguous. What a Zen-like paradox! But to state the matter non-paradoxically, I think, is useful, which is to say: the phenomenon of life itself is objective and unambiguous, but the possible interpretations of life are deeply ambiguous and subjective. Both the objective and the subjective factors rule us. (The subjective factors, it turns out, become objective through the principle of the causal nature of neural process, but that's a whole other story.)

I guess where this leaves me with regards to the given metaphor is still in a plaintive mode. What does a person really mean when they are saying that an old man in love is (like) a flower in winter? What are they trying to communicate? I'm trying to reach beyond the surface of the statement into what is beyond: namely, the intent of the speaker, the intended message. To me, whether a person is a technical writer or a poet, if they fail to communicate their intended meaning, they have not succeeded in their task (or have willfully misled or obfuscated, though I think not in this particular case). When the multiple ambiguous meanings support one another, ambiguity can be a powerful way of compressing meaning in fewer words, but when the potential interpretations conflict, it becomes, like a Zen koan, which is to say meaningless for the sake of being meaningless (which in Zen, I believe, is done to drive the listener past logical and linguistic distinctions to a more direct experience of "raw reality").

And now back to my other extra-dissertational distractions…

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