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.


23 thoughts on “The Objective Correlative

  1. I really like this idea. I am always nervous when people ask what I meant by a specific piece of work or what inspired it in case I can’t explain what may have been a wordless concept to me but deeply felt; or in case they go ‘Oh’; or in case they are disappointed…etc etc. I always love however when people tell me what they see and think it is great when they see something different so I think I may go with your idea in future.

  2. There is a pianting hanging on my wall that I bought purely and simply because it made me laugh with the memories it evoked when I first saw it . . . it still warms my heart each time I look at it. Laughter is maybe not what the artist intended my response to be but there you go – my pleasure, her sale!

  3. It was a pivotal moment when I realized that it was OK, even preferable, for a viewer to find their own meaning in my work. I often use deep personal symbolism, but it’s just that, personal, and I rarely explain it. And yet, I always stumble, awkwardly looking for an answer, when asked about meaning. I will remember this brilliant response!

  4. Just this week I was reading a magazine or newspaper where an author was asked the meaning of a writing and the response was “I never explain my writing. I let the reader decide what I was trying to say.” I like the name for that concept even if it is “slightly” erudite.

  5. I’ve had this happen in my art before. I had a man buy one of my paintings, and after looking at it for several minutes, he asked me what my purpose was behind it. I explained my reason for painting it, but asked him what he saw in it. He said he and his wife had recently lost a child, and in my painting he saw hope. He bought it on the spot, and what he saw in it was very different from what I saw in it. From that point on, I tell people that they should look for their own revelations in my artwork.

  6. Quinn, The objective correlative is just exactly what I needed to read/hear at this time in my journey. Participation in writing groups and open mike poetry readings often arouses from a listener that very question…what were your thoughts in writing this…your suggestion for a response is pure perfection for me. Thank you for the explanation/definition and a new paradigm.

    • When people ask me what I was thinking when I wrote something, I often feel like telling them, “It doesn’t matter. What are YOU feeling now?” It makes a much better story.

  7. Quinn, you are so wise! The beauty of art lies in the eye of the beholder. Isn’t that why something attracts us? The photo, the piece of art, the piece of writing speaks to something in us. Why would we want someone else’s explanation?

  8. I like that explanation. I’ve tried to explain that to people before, that the beauty of art is in the meanings and reactions from the viewers, not necessarily what the artist meant.

  9. I first heard about the objective correlative in the context of film, where IIRC it was used a bit differently: it was something like “a sequence or combination of things that will evoke the emotional reaction intended by the director”. Audiences have different experiences, but tend to all have the same reaction to a movie where the good guys win unexpectedly, the young lovers find a way to be together, or mysterious, menacing footsteps pursue someone relentlessly. This was supposedly one of the reasons for the popularity of movies: the chance to participate in shared emotional experiences that temporarily make an audience an “us” instead of a collection of “I”s.

    The difference might be simply because film and poetry are very different media, and while it’s pretty common to ask “what does that poem mean”, films are less often about “meaning” and more about emotional reaction. Also, by the way, “objective correlative” was attributed in film study to some artist whose name I don’t recall instead of Eliot. Figures; movie people steal everything. 🙂

    As for meaning in poetry, I went to high school just down the road from Wesleyan University (the one in Connecticut) and from time to time we had guest speakers. One of them was a poet (probably a poetry professor) who explained that his objective in writing a poem was to get it to a point where he himself didn’t know what it meant. I’m sure he’d be surprised I still remember that and still don’t get it.

    • You’ll notice I didn’t quote T.S. Eliot, just paraphrased. I’m guessing that every interpretation is personal. And that professor?–[shaking head] I have no idea what he was thinking.

      • I was intrigued enough to look it up; the term was first used in 1840 by a South Carolina painter, Washington Allston, and popularized by Eliot in 1919 in an essay about Hamlet. It was apparently a significant essay and an example of “new criticism”. But it must not have been called that when Eliot wrote his essay because the book that named it (_The New Criticism_) wasn’t published until 1941.

        I’m not sure which has expended more hours of human effort: thousands of people constructing Wikipedia or me following links inside it.

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