The Objective Correlative

That headline alone will cause me to lose half my readers. Still, I press on.

Wheat Field taken by Angel Villalba

Wheat Field taken by Angel Villalba

Every artist and writer has been asked, “What does this [poem, story, artwork] mean? What were you thinking when you created it?” Often, the artist struggles through an awkward self-revelatory answer that disappoints the listener, who had a private idea that wasn’t honored.

It is the moment for the Objective Correlative. It’s a term that serves as a measure of success of a creative work. A work that has an objective correlative allows each viewer (or reader) to become a participant in the art. Each person brings a private vision of understanding to artwork.  The viewer applies the metaphors to his or her own life, and it makes sense. Each person brings a personal vision, and although there are many personal visions, each one works with the meaning of the art.

Hmm, not clear enough. Let’s use an example. Laura Crozier is a Canadian poet. In her book, Inventing the Hawk, she has a series of poems on angels. One of them, “The Motionless Angel” (on p.54) is about a horse standing  motionless in a snowstorm. He becomes white on the side facing the snow and remains black on the other; the dark is so intense that

” . . .anything could walk
right through it
and disappear. “

One person reading those lines will remember the skin-searing winters of their childhood. Another person will remember a relationship with a person who owned a horse and who loved the horse more than the person. A third person will remember a relationship which ended after a midnight walk during which her companion said something that made her feel invisible. Each one of those people is experiencing the objective correlative. And if the poem is well written, it will support all of the different ideas all the way through.

What the writer meant is not nearly as important as what the reader can understand. That’s the great gift of the Objective Correlative. The term was invented by T. S. Eliot, who wrote The Wasteland.  I simplified Eliot’s explanation, and I hope he forgives me.

If you share your art, and someone asks “what did you meant by that line?” or “Why did you take this photo this way?” you can smile and ask what it means to the viewer. It’s the opening to a far more interesting conversation than trying to explain yourself.

Here’s a wonderful poem from Laura Crozier:

The Dead Angels

The angels lie down
in he field. That delicate
rustling is not the wind
playing the thin pipes of wheat,
but the angels’ feathers,
their dead wings.

You can’t see them, but listen
when you check your crops,
the wheat so golden
it seems to float above the ground.

What a beautiful
sad sound they make,
all those feathers
remembering the wind.

–Quinn McDonald is discovering the love of poetry all over again.