The Projection of Meaning

The Poet And His Characters

The Poet And His Characters


What is meaning? Like laughter (or in a well-known formulation, pornography), it is easier to recognize than define. The more I think about meaning, the more interestingly strange the concept becomes.

The psychological term “projection” indicates an inner, subjective feeling imposed on an outer, objective world. As the word “imposed” suggests, there’s often a negative, or at least corrective sense: you look uncomfortable to me, but really you are comfortable and I’m projecting my discomfort onto you.

But, I say to myself, can that kind of process be separated altogether from meaning itself? Could I get through a day without imposing or projecting all sorts of meanings? Isn’t that how Sherlock Holmes and his descendants do their logical (or intuitive) deducing?

My amateur philosophizing about projection and meaning is inspired by a contemporary poem I admire, Tom Sleigh’s “Block and Bag,” from his 2007 book Space Walk. The process of meaning is demonstrated, as in time-lapse photography of a plant or larva, through forty-five lines of (implicitly) staring out a hotel window at the “blah arena” of an empty courtyard. For me, the poem is an interesting example of both meaning and laughter.

Sleigh’s shrewd, attractive, comical phrase “blah arena” is more accurate than my “empty courtyard,” which begs an adverb: “seemingly empty” or “basically empty” or “drearily empty.” The characterization of the observer who says (or thinks, or writes) “blah arena” proceeds through description of two other characters: a block of styrofoam and a plastic bag, in the wind.

A range of language, including “afflatus of breath” and “john/whore,” whirls and puffs around the two protagonists—in a single, persistent gust of a  sentence!— creating a shaped cloud of feeling and . . . meaning. The poem evokes a mood and a frame of reference, personal and lyrical, yet the only use of the personal pronouns “I” and “you” is in the italicized twenty-first and twenty-eighth lines, where “I” is not the poet but either of the two characters, Block and Bag.

What does it mean? That tiresome pedagogical question, as always with true, meaningful works of art, can be answered entirely and properly only by the work itself. There is a lot to say about “Block and Bag,” as the poet demonstrates, but the saying cannot exhaust the meaning.


(Tom Sleigh)

Pursuit, delay, anxious moments of dallying,
then leaps, bounds, hilarious cartwheels turning
manic with rage or fear performed in a concrete

courtyard bare but for hotel windows replicating
everywhere these mad, senseless, random chases,
a little styrofoam block fiery as Achilles

racing after a plastic bag kiting and billowing
round and round this blah arena, this angle/plane world
stripped to extremes of sun scraping concrete

bare, or blasted dark, obliviated by clouds,
the light neutered to the spirit’s dullest grays while Block
and Bag now seem hunter/prey, john/whore,

then inexplicably bound and flutter to a halt,
exhausted, Block’s corners pitted, rounded
by bumps and skids and somersaults,

Bag blowzy and worn, bedraggled by all this
unexpected passion, this afflatus of breath swelling
it full then sucked out so it collapses in ruin,

abject, pleading, overdoing it maybe, knowing more
than it lets on, only playing dead for Block’s titillation,
You did it, you conquered, I’m nothing, nothing …

until the whirlwind hits and drives them on
obsessed without purpose in their abandon
that could be joy, terror, elation of love, despair’s

deflation, desire’s movements like armies
maneuvering across no man’s land, the spirit
coquetting after the unreachable

as Block now bounds to within an inch of Bag
fluttering off at an eccentric angle,
the light winking off it like an eye winking,

you know I know you know someone’s watching—
now Bag crumples in a corner, seemingly blacked out,
Block hovering near as if debating to strike

and demolish Bag, put an end to this pursuit—
no angle of approach, no middle ground,
no terms of ransom, no truce—

just this squarish, brick-faced concrete
among endless displacements rippling out
across this nowhere courtyard where Block and Bag

are at it again, running amok, racing round and round,
giving no quarter and desiring none
the way heroes of old lavish on each other

ferocious attentions no lover can rival,
oh most worthy and wedded of combatants:
berserk Block; shrewd tactician Bag.


51 thoughts on “The Projection of Meaning

  1. Pingback: “CLASSIC POEM” DISCUSSIONS RETURN TO | Robert Pinsky Poetry Forum

  2. Thanks to all who contributed to the quality and generosity of this discussion, the second in my experiment of choosing recent poems. Anyone who flips through these pages will note how people respond to one another, contributing to a fresh, ample view of the poem (and comparable poems, and music!) in ways that go beyond my introduction. (As is the purpose here.) In a month, I’ll come up with another poem, returning I think to historical work.

    • And thank you for providing this space for the careful reading of poetry, whether it be recent or historical. I have learned something about a poet, a poem, and, sometimes, myself, each time. I’ve found, too, that this forum helps me pick up some tools to be a better reader of poetry, and, when I try, to be a braver writer of poetry.

  3. Among other things, I very much enjoyed the humour in this poem — the styrofoam block pursuing this bag — how many times have we glimpsed trash blowing around on the street, but never described as such “mad pursuit”? I can “see” both Block and Bag so clearly, and Sleigh makes the chase more vivid with his use of enjambment and punctuation, as Kathryn points out; Robert’s reading too emphasized the ceaselessness of this pursuit. To compare Block and Bag to classical heroes like Achilles makes the description even funnier and richer, and broadens the meaning, as so many commenters (Ted, Don, chezjulie, Robert, Alicia, Daniel) have noted: how far is “love,” or lust, sometimes, from mortal combat? I found these images memorable.
    Jennifer, I also recalled the Williams poem, but no more than recalled: you illuminated this comparison for all of us!

  4. Regrettably, in honor of the centenary of the Great War (later given the numeric WWI) I’ve been reading poems of the Great War. Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon – all that. At the moment I’m just a too but full of it.
    While obviously these characters are just trash in the wind, don’t they embody the spirit of that conflict? Block and Bag, blown over and over again their no mans land? Is this barren courtyard their Verdun?
    Perhaps at another time I could see this as more existential, But if these aren’t the nature of that, then who are?

    • Ken Johnson, my military musings in response to the combat element of the poem have been, as I remember, Homeric and Wars-of-the-Roses. Adding the WWI bleakness and unrelenting destruction enriches it. Thank you.

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