Creative Wordshops Jan/Feb 2017 Writing Newsletter

Types of Ambiguity Dorian Haarhoff

Ways with Words: Ambiguity

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,…(Keats’s Ode to a Grecian Urn)

In the Old Testament, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were thrown into a fiery furnace. From the fire of words three muses arise unbidden. Their names are ambiguity, paradox and Irony. They arrive in our recounting for there is no straight story. This letter addresses the first of these sisters- ambiguity. I’ll arrive at the others in subsequent letters.

Our language is the language of ambiguity. Words carry multiple meanings, sometimes contradictory. In the Keats quotation prefacing this letter ‘still’ may mean ‘not moving’ and as yet unchanged. Or take the word such as ‘play’ which brings with it so many nuances. While context sometimes determines the primary meaning, other meanings ghost around a word. Echoing it in other dimensions. Their grandparents (ancestry) and cousins (synonyms) arrive in the story.

Play is both noun and verb. To amuse, to caper, to act, to play music by ear, to play the fool, to gamble, to take part in sport, to play up. We play games. Play involves curiosity. And curiosity is about movement leading us on. And so to play in words invokes our curiosity- an antidote to grief and stuckness. Rhyming also ignites other meanings. A child might hear in a priest’s words ‘let us pray,’ ‘let us play.’ Introducing the notion of prayer as play.

The critic and poet William Empson’s, Seven Types of Ambiguity celebrates the astonishing riches of linguistic ambiguity in English poetic literature. Verbal nuances that give rise to alternative responses to the same text. Empson’s studies unearth layer upon layer. ‘The machinations of ambiguity are among the very roots of poetry’…

Download full newsletter here