Two-word poetry: An experiment in the success and failure of a complex message delivered through simple media

The essential idea behind a two-word poem is simple enough, stick two words together in an interesting way, and the reader will either see the message you painstakingly boiled down to its barest essence, or else impose his own interpretation on it. The latter is the most likely case, as the simpler the transmission medium, the harder it is to clearly convey complex ideas. Binary data, for example, is a meaningless string of ons and offs until a very complex set of standards for interpreting them is agreed upon by all parties (have you ever seen the ISO standard for floating point notation?). A 1,000 word essay, or a picture, on the other hand, is generally intended to be as clear and unambiguous as possible (although one can make it otherwise through a great deal of effort).

Undoubtedly, the most famous two-word poem was delivered by warrior-poet Muhammad Ali: "Me. We." Simple and direct, the juxtaposition of opposite concepts (that even rhyme) brings with it a host of overwhelmingly positive messages. Although we must remember to take his message in context of who he is to understand the issue of why it was well received. Muhammad Ali was known for his eloquence and self-promotion, he brought with him a reputation for, if not brilliance, then at least competence in the art of poetry and a known background as a man of peace, despite his violent profession. His audience was expecting cleverness and was predisposed to seeing it, and therefore his powerful message, that wasted no words but spoke volumes, was comprehended and applauded.

Going beyond the threshold of the two-word poem we come to the genius of Ogden Nash, whose short, often one- or two-line poems would likely be disregarded as too easy had he not so consistently output quality through brevity, allowing meaning to radiate from his words rather than be contained by them, as I have always thought good poetry should. (Conversely, as a writer of prose, I seek to tightly contain my meaning within the words I provide, and consider my efforts to have failed should additional meaning manage to leak outside of their boundaries.)

I do not seek to imply that Muhammad Ali and Ogden Nash have "earned their bullshit", as the popular saying goes. Rather the opposite. One who has earned his bullshit can get away with spewing meaningless noise across his chosen medium, allowing the audience to add whatever meaning they so desire. When I think of this concept, I think of An Andalusian Dog, the surrealist film by Luis Bañuel and Salvador Dalí. As a rule, they insisted that "no idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted" into the film, it was intentionally meaningless.

But their audience would not be dissuaded so easily. Like a man finding faces in random patterns, people shoehorned their own meaning into the film, finding signal where there was only noise. Had the same movie been made by a college film student, it would have been ignored, but the fame of the authors brought with it the expectation that it was packed with symbolism if you could only find the hidden message. They did not seek to bamboozle their audience, their audience was only too happy to do that themselves.

Likewise, had Ogden Nash written of fleas that "Adam had'em" and thus began and ended his career, the quip would have been chuckled at and quickly forgotten. Had Muhammad Ali said "Me. We." to a gathered crowd of college students without having first established his credibility as an artist, he would have been met with silence, or more likely jeers.

What we see here is that a poem is rarely, and probably should never be, considered in a vacuum. I stated at the beginning that a simple transmission medium requires that the sender and receiver agree on the rules for meaning to be delivered. In science, these rules are clearly spelled out and available to anyone who has the background to understand them. In art, these rules are often difficult to state in words, and frequently lose their impact if this is even attempted. So there is only one place from whence the audience can glimpse the context from which an artistic message is to be understood:

The poet is as much a part of the poem as the words.