Pumpjack Book Reviews

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Book Review: Seven Types of Ambiguity by William Empson


Empson lovingly, cheerfully takes apart poems to try and explain how the various types of ambiguity fuel the whole creative endeavor.

William Empson was a noted British literary critic and poet. (Interestingly, he was apparently drummed out of Magdalene College, Cambridge, for the shocking crime of having condoms in his room. That’s their loss.) He went on to distinguish himself for writing and for exceptional and insightful literary criticism. His most influential work was his first, Seven Types of Ambiguity, written at the tender age of 22! It’s a classic for a reason; he sets for himself the monumental task of understanding how poetry “works” — why, when done well, it moves us and sticks with us even though it was written in eras long past?

Why does he set out on this journey? Because “unexplained beauty arouses an irritation in me, a sense that this would be a good place to scratch …”

And scratch he does, penning an amazing, overwhelming and at times daunting work that dissects snippets and sections of well-known and lesser-known works of poetry and plays to find the source of their power. His answer? Ambiguity — “any verbal nuance, however slight, which gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language.”

Every single written phrase can be read differently depending upon this natural ambiguity of word choices, the intent of the writer and the social context in which it is being read. Because, “Any word can be either screamed or grunted, so if you have merely a word written on paper you have to know not only its meaning but something about its context before it can tell you whether to grunt or to scream.”

And poetry — condensed and distilled into almost pure essence — is especially open to interpretation. As he notes, “…the whole charm of the poem is its extravagant, its unreasonable simplicity.”

And also because: “The demands of metre allow the poet to say something which is not normal colloquial English, so that the reader thinks of the various colloquial forms which are near to it, and puts them together; weighting their probabilities in proportion to their nearness.”

Empson lovingly, cheerfully takes apart poems to try and explain how the various types of ambiguity fuel the whole creative endeavor. His efforts are so finely detailed, so exhaustive, I found myself at times skipping sections. Here’s an example that glazed my eyes:

“Ambiguity of the sixth type by tautology (not by irrelevance) is likely to fulfil the following rather exacting conditions: there will be a pun which is used twice, once in each sense, and the massive fog of the complete ambiguity will then arise from a doubt as to which meaning goes with which word."

But then, fearful of missing a point, I went back and reread every section I had given short-shrift. And it was worth the double efforts, because along with critical insights, he has some incredible turns of phrase:

“…only very delicate people are as tactful in this matter as the printed page.”

“…final ‘judgment’ is a thing which must be indefinitely postponed.”

“There is much danger of triviality in this, because it requires a display of ingenuity such as can easily be used to escape from the consciousness of one’s ignorance…”

“And that is why the practice of putting single words into italics for emphasis (again the Victorians are guilty) is so vulgar …”

“… a statement of the limitations of human life is a sort of recipe for producing humility, concentration, and sincerity in the reader …”

“… to recognise melancholy truths is itself, if you can be protected somehow, an invigorating activity …”

Seven Types of Ambiguity is a rich and rewarding read, and a wonderful reminder that — sometimes by intent, sometimes by instinct — good writing creates a deep and powerful world worthy of further analysis and introspection. But given the agile, curious mind behind this work, don’t think of it as a guide on how to be a better poet. That’s like reading a dissertation on particle physics from a distinguished thinker in the field and hoping it will help you change a flat tire. It may be well worth the read, and it will certainly expand your mind, but it will not help if you’re stranded on the side of the road.

In fact, trying to harness ambiguity — in poetry or creative writing — will likely only leave you with a final product that seems trite and obvious. And William Empson would almost certainly damn that with faint but well-turned praise.