Friday, April 20, 2007

Threshold

Clarity and accessability are issues in poetry. For some the issues are a pitfall. How does one straddle the line between clarity and accessability, and their opposites? On one side is the abyss of obscurity, on the other lies the precipice of pandering.

My own poetry is occasionally considered to be obscure, even experimental (as if that were a naughty word). But inevitably, there is always a reader or two who grasps my meaning and intent; and I am satisfied. So perhaps clarity in "difficult" poetry is not the issue, but rather whether or not the poet has allowed a wide enough threshold for easy entrance. Clarity is indeed an issue: but it is a separate issue from accessability.

It's a choice, perhaps. For each poem, how readily accessible do I want the poem to be? Sometimes making a poem "wide enough" to be understood by a reader who has not shared the experience conveyed in the poem, will lose some of the sharpness and accuracy of what I want to convey. Yet can one be happy with the appreciation of a narrower, more select audience?

"Threshold" is a very good way to describe this issue of accessability into a poem: the poem's threshold, the availability of its self to inspection, the openness of its portal to entry. How readily accessible do you want your poems to be? How wide open do you like to leave the door for the reader who is entering your poem's house?

I think of Odysseas Elytis' remark: Every poet needs an audience of three, and since every poet has two good friends, the search is always for that perfect third reader. I also think of The Dweller on the Threshold, from Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton's novel Zanoni.

The Dweller is the guardian of the mysteries, the temple guardian, whose job it was or is to turn away the casual, unwary, or insufficiently prepared. Many sacred texts speak of this, as well as the occult literature.

I'll be honest: I appreciate clarity wherever I find it, because I think it's a sin of egotism to make a poem obscure merely for the sake of being obscure. (Doubly so when such obscurity is really transparency in a cloak.) But I'm very aware that many "difficult" poems ask the reader to work, sometimes more than some readers would like; they are not inaccessible, although they may be unclear at first, and require work to get into. Many of my "difficult" poems come out of my experience, and for the most part are concrete and imagistic, but they often get labelled by others as unusual and experimental. So, even though I greatly appreciate clarity over obscurity, I guess I have a relatively high threshold.

So be it. Looking out the window from my writing desk, where I sat and wrote out these ideas recently, here is what I perceived:

lines of shadow on snow: spiral labyrinth of barren woods.
riffle of near-ice water at the bend. long sleep of trout.
animal heart tracks of rabbit, deer, wild fowl: blood song lines.
this cold silence. these crisp twigs, cracking. moon of popping trees.
together, turning: passion way dormant, sibilance of red bird's wing.


Or again:

Outside the bitter wind, window on east creek view: these shadows
of late-afternoon winter trees make trail-lines across the crusted snow, engaging
in angled dialogue with all the animal tracks left behind as punctured memories;
deer, wild turkey, showshoe hare, cardinals flitting, a few junco and brown sparrow,
leaving their trails in overlapping lines with the tree shadows. A clear pale cyan sky
reminds that as the day ends, so do we: each morning a resurrection. A day spent railing
along the grooves, knocking loose dead leaves, palimpsests of grieving, new fear.
What the heart murmurs to the machines: some rhythm of reverence, of memory,
merging with some long cold sleep just this side of permanence. How do you weep,
when there's nothing left to say, but fare well? A turbulence in the breast:

a lamentation, a shock of skipped steps, a serenity earned. Nothing more.
In the rising wind, snow crusts fall from the juniper and make fresh pocked tracks
in the fading light, the amber, again snowfields.

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