Saturday, November 11, 2006

Obscurity for the Sake of Being Obscure Is No Virtue

It is all-too-common, though, in contemporary poetry. Many beginning or younger poets (in practice, if not in calendar age) confuse obscurity with depth, thinking that if if no one understands them, they must be doing something right. But that's a case of the emperor's new clothes.

Taken to its ultimate, arcane extreme, this sort of obscurantist poetry reduces its audience to one: the poet, who is the only person who has a clue what is going on. (This is my main objection with poets like John Ashbery: there is no way for the reader to find their way into the poem.) All too often, subterfuge, misdirection, ambiguity, cloaked meanings, faux-Surrealism, and obscurity stand in for actually having something to say. It's a maze with no reward: after you have navigated all the tricks and hidden passages, and found your way to the center, there's nothing there but an empty room. There's no there there.

The idea that poetry needn't communicate is exactly why poetry has no common readers, no best-sellers, and is read mostly by other poets. That's a problematic little puzzle-box of a conundrum all on it's own. Nor, however, do I think writing down, or pandering to the lowest poetic denominator in the potential audience, to be the solution.

Poetry that is all edifice and no substance is a waste of time and effort. It's an intellectual exercise, akin to a murder mystery; but the difference there is akin to the difference between a puzzle-box drawing-room mystery such as Agatha Christie's, and a mystery that unfolds less mechanically but more naturalistically, like Raymond Chandler's or Tony Hillerman's, where the writer had something to say of substance, based in experience, and the mechanics of the plot don't show through the curtains. (The reason to read Chandler is for the poetry of his writing, the vividness of his characters and the described world they move through; his plots are often his weakest elements, and they do not proceed via clockwork logic but are often laden with meaningful coincidence.) If you want to simply play a guessing game with the reader, there are ancient models, such as that Medieval volume, the Exeter Riddle Book. A guessing game can be poetically undertaken, but is not at its root poetry. Avant-garde writers are just as prone to obscurantism as any other group; there have always been avant-garde writers who make you see the world in a new way, and expand your mind with new possibilties; while others, claiming to blindly follow the irrational guidance of their inner worlds, present a magic show, curtain after curtain revealing another curtain, and no end in sight. There were good Surrealists, and there were bad Surrealists.

Deliberately making it hard for the reader, for no reason than to make it hard for the reader, is mainly rude. Telling the reader to go back and re-read the poem till they "get it" can be churlish. If you leave no trail of breadcrumbs, then how can you expect to be followed?

It's perfectly possible to write complex, beautiful, musical, arcane poetry, that can still be followed. It's possible to erect a towering edifice yet still bring your reader along with you. A writer like Jorge Luis Borges can be arcane, difficult, obscure, and even frustrating, but there's always something beautiful and surprising waiting for you at the center of the Maze. Borges demonstrates that even purely intellectual exercises can be gut-wrenching, and take you deeper into life and mystery, than any logic-puzzle has a chance of doing. (I view Borges as a poet and practitioner of meta-fiction, not of standard fiction. He is sometimes criticized as being a bad short story writer; but that misses the point, because he was never really writing short stories.) There are indeed some poets who carry you on their sheer musicality alone: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, evem Hart Crane. But achieving that is rare, and requires a good, well-trained ear.

Thinking that obscurity is a poetic ultimate is thinking that content doesn't matter at all in poetry. The argument for obscurity of expression, in and of itself, is an argument against content. Certainly there are lofty and ordinary, simple and complex, musical and blunt ways to say essentially the same things. What I am decrying here is the use of the lofty, complex, musical means that are used for the sake of prettiness, when there is nothing to say. This tactic can generate pretty gardens of words, but they're like cotton-candy: they're tremendous frothy fun going down, and leave you in the end feeling empty and unsatisfied. Marie Antoinette playing Queen in her fantasy garden at Versailles, while the peasants in the streets had no bread. Rococco mannerism: the fripperies of a Watteau painting, all shimmer and glabrous sheen. Poetry with plucked eyebrows.

I am not advocating clarity over artistry, or simplicity for the sake of simplicity, in some reactionary manner—although others have made that argument—but there is something to be said for engaging the reader, enticing them along the journey, rather than trying to deliberately confuse or mislead them. There are some subjects that are complex, and require complex, multilayered writing to engage. But with obscurity for its own sake, that's being complex simply to show off, well, that's purely egotism.

If you have a complex subject, by all means write about it using the best means available. But don't over-write, and there's no need to make it confusing as well as complex. Leave a trail for the reader to follow; or, if you leave no trail, don't complain about no one being to follow you. Make sure there's a chimera or a manticore, something dangerous, beautiful and vaguely disturbing, waiting for the reader, when they arrive at the center of the Maze.

Some interesting thoughts on this and closely-related topics:

A discussion of Marianne Moore's poem Poetry.

Tim Love writes about difficulty in poetry.

A further Tim Love thought on obscurity.

Steve Kowit on The Mystique of the Difficult Poem.

Now, it seems to me, the next layer of this topic is for poets to find a way to communicate their inscapes (to use the Hopkins term) in a way that is evocative, possibly complex, and personal, without being so idiosyncratically personal that no one else a clue what's going on. In other words, personal without being hermetic. (Or confessional, necessarily; confessional poetry is unfortunately responsible for the many horrid excesses of journal-poetry and therapy-poetry.)

This is where language comes in, I think.

Not syntax, not grammar—I am the last person to say that poetry must use textbook formulae of syntax and grammar—but rather, heightened speech. Perhaps poetry begins in the everyday, ordinary speech, which then, through various poetic means, including compression and crystallization, becomes exalted. The idea of poetry, as a Platonic ideal, prior to the Moderns, was that poetry had to be metered rhyme of some sort; that was the Western archetype of what poetry is. Poetry had its roots in sacred texts, and in the epic. (cf. Alfred Lord, The Singer of Tales, still a relevant read on this topic, if otherwise dated) Since the Moderns, poetry as an ideal archetype has changed, and its boundaries have gotten intermingled with many other forms of writing, including prose, and influences from the East, such as haiku, tanka, the characteristic Chinese and Indian forms, and so on. So, a lot more of the ordinary, everyday speech can be found in poetry nowadays.

That doesn't mean that all poetry should be plain speech. I think one of the things that defines poetry is that it is heightened speech, charged language, numinous, exalted, ecstatic, non-ordinary. Musical. It's different because it's somehow more real. It's the act of putting a piece of cloth in a frame and hanging it on the wall that makes it a "painting," in most non-artist's minds; I could argue this, but the action of framing the space and time in which a poem occurs does set it apart, as it does a concert performance of a piece of music.

So, as a poet myself who is often accused of being obscure (although a quick bit of Google research can often take care of that; research goes a long way, these days—the Internet is a great tool for looking things up), not I think because I am trying to be obscure for its own sake, but because my inspirations and sources are often non-mainstream, non-everyday—as such a poet, I greatly sympathize with poets who get called obscure by some readers, when the readers could "get it" if they worked a little harder. That is not what we are speaking out against here, in this discussion of [obscurity for its own sake] as a trope and style.

I think it's okay to ask the reader to work a little, and meet the poet part-way. Haiku depends on this: it requires the reader to finish the poem, to enspirit the poem. I think it's okay to ask the reader to be a little bit more active, rather than be a passively-entertained TV watcher with no interaction. Great poetry always engages the reader. However—and this is that pivot point where we discover a possible balance-point—however, it's not my goal to baffle the reader and lead them astray with uncanny wit, more-intelligent-than-thou superior posturing, or a magician's bluff when there's no minotaur in the Maze. Showmanship in literature is ego-display.

The trouble is, I write poetry, or so it seems at times, that's pretty far out there, by many readers' standards. This is in part, I recognize, because one of its sources is visionary experience: experience of non-ordinary reality. How do I develop a language to deal with that? I've been thinking about this, and working on it, for many years. One possible solution is to use plain language in a visionary way; I've tried to do that in poems such as in another world. Another solution is to find a way to speak to inscape that can still include the reader; perhaps vision needs to be grounded in the concrete, so that the sublime and the ordinary can co-exist. I don't know if I can articulate this very well, right now; I'll have to think about it some more.

I have some issue with the "poetry is communication" argument, because if we take that to its ultimate extreme, we would never do anything to challenge the reader, make the reader work a little, or open their minds. In my book, that way lies pandering: entertainment rather than art. That is perhaps the opposite extreme from the [obscurity for its own sake] examples we've been talking about here. I don't think either extreme is useful to either poet or reader.

If poetry is only communication, it might as well be prose.

I think poetry can communicate, and communicate well, even complex poetry. I think it can inspire, and shock, and explode. I think it can be what Robert Bly has called "leaping poetry." I think it can build a great edifice.

But in the end it still has to have transparency, clarity, some connection to the life of the reader, even if only archetypally and psychologically, or musically and viscerally.

It comes down to intention.

If the intentions are to honestly experiment, as the poets of the avant-garde were wont to do, that's a different—and I believe it produced a different kind of poetry than the ignorant ego-driven poetry that has become reflexive for many poets today.

Having said that, I still am not fond of the "you have to know the rules to break them" argument, even though I acknowledge that in many cases it's a true statement. I won't deny it even in my own case, except to say that I really don't think about craft when I'm writing; it's the last thing on my mind. I also know, from personal experience, and from observing others, how very very hard it is to let go of the rules and un-learn them once you've learned them—so that one might transcend them, pass beyond them, stop thinking of them as the end of the journey. Far too many artists think they're the end of the journey.

I went through this after music school, watching how all the music theory they'd crammed down our throats was actively inhibiting us from writing new music. Some years later, I know of only two composer friends I knew during music school, other than myself, who are still writing and/or performing music. Craft can be over-done and over-taught. The secret truth about music school was: they really couldn't teach us how to write music, or what to write. All they could teach was the craft of music theory.

Craft can become so internalized that it is no longer at the forefront of consciousness, no longer has to be thought about, and so the poet can go forward not having to think about craft anymore, but just write. Of course, internalizzed craft doesn't go away. But it also is no longer a mental hindrance, either. It serves and supports, without blocking the flow.

I observe that many poets who, young or old, have this tendency towards being deliberately obscure, for the sake of obscurity, are very very bound up with "the rules" of craft. That is in fact all that they have to rely on, because of the previously-mentioned lack of actual content. Examine a poem that is very heavy on craft, and takes a very long and complex way to say something very simple, and ask why the poet did it that way, when they could have done it much more simply. Could the same thing have been said in a haiku? If they did it for fun, well and good: writing frilly nothings can be great fun; but they don't endure.

Similarly, look at how great, complex poems use technique and are still compelling, even though difficult and even obscure. I think of Rilke's Duino Elegies; William Blake, which can take a bit of deciphering at times; Mallarmé, Elytis, Paz, and Borges.

By way of analogy: Bach's Two-Part Inventions for keyboard were originally written as study-pieces, for one of his offspring to learn to play the harpsichord (and fortepiano, which was a new instrument back then). They were etudes. The difference between Bach's etudes and the music written for the exact same purpose by Hanon and Czerny, their piano etudes, is that people still want to hear Bach. No one ever plays Czerny or Hanon in concert: only students ever play those pieces. But there's actual music going on in Bach, behind the surface flash, in Bach's etudes.

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Anonymous said...

Thank you, for thoughts on poetry and obscurity in writing poetry. I was just reading poems where I felt absolutely no connection to the story, or there was none. It seemed that they could have poured out tiny pieces of paper with words and recorded them how they landed. As though I am supposed to assume they have a hidden meaning that I just don't have the insight to be allowed in this private world.
I love poetry, but many of the poems, whether too trite or too obscure but empty, leave me painfully yawning to escape. I love Robert Frost or Langston Hughes or many others who allow me into the story, whether they are simple like Hughes, or more complex like Frost's To Earthward, I love them both. You expressed your ideas so much better than I did.

9:09 PM  

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