Buried in the comments somewhere down there, David asks important questions on opacity of meaning and intention that I thought needed their own space on the front page. Hopefully, he’ll respond to my ideas with a fresh post of his own, and maybe Sarah will jump in with a new one as well.
David writes, “What about all this opacity? Is it a syndrome? What’s it worth? Anything? How do you deal with issues of clarity and explicitness?”
I remember talking with my father about this when I was perhaps 14 or 15 years old, as drove me to a friend’s house in a distant exurb near a dam. I don’t know how I remember this just now, but I do. I remember asking my dad how he knows the right amount of difficulty to put into a poem, how he can be just tricky enough with his words to make poetry (for at that time, I assumed that all poetry must have some complexity) without making his work an impenetrable puzzle. His response was basically that I was asking the wrong question, that he doesn’t really worry about the complexity, which I think is related to opacity (though it might not be the same), that he writes and lets this type of question take care of itself. From one perspective, it might be possible to say it’s a wrongheaded question. But it’s no fun to say, “Don’t worry about it.” It’s makes for a bad blog post, in any case. Let’s jump in.
Over the years as my style has changed, I think I’ve dealt with meaning in very different ways, although I think my approach might be, for the most part, fundamentally different from what you describe in your comments, in as much as you “create an experience rather than relate one.” I see myself in the business of relating experience, and my frustrations with meaning and opacity in poetry come from a desire to convey qualia. I try to communicate exactly how something affected me, how it appears to me. Since by definition there is something ineffable about qualia, I’ll never quite be able to communicate this in my poetry, but I do try to approximate the quale as best I can.
Because this is a root principle of my poetry for the last 9 years, I think it’s made me drawn to certain styles and poets; I think of two particulars right now: high modernism (especially during college) for its ability to pack a lot of meaning and associations into a single word and the New York School for the personal and observational quality of their poems. The combination of these two styles has made me focus on simple direct communication, although sometimes I’d rely on a particular word for a lot of meaning — a feature of modernism that sometimes requires a dictionary. But even so, I think that in most of my poems, I keep a very strong level of authorial control over
the my meaning. It isn’t to say I don’t want others to interpret my work in their own way; quite the contrary. But I acknowledge that I don’t often leave a lot of room.
In the last couple of years, my poems increasingly depart from this stylistic M.O. I find that I write more things in a, for lack of a better word, eastern style, trying to be more of a mirror in my poetry than an actor. I think some of my best stuff recently is when this new style mixes with the old style in interesting ways. Of course, in poetry, one cannot be completely a mirror — the nature of conscious selection does not exist in a “real” mirror in quite the same way. Nevertheless, it’s increasingly “the mood of the poem” rather than “the mood of the narrator.”
So: opacity, poetry. I think Eliot, sound poets, others — to me they are not opaque. They come with ciphers. Sure, with Eliot you need to google every few words to get the resonances he creates. With sound poets, the cipher is the pleasure of the sound, the quirks it provokes in the listener. Even Finnegan’s Wake is not quite opaque, though it is surely difficult. Finnegan’s Wake has multiple, nearly infinite ciphers. (This point on Finnegan’s Wake leads to another interesting and related topic of the work of art as attempting a totality/world unto itself, contrasted with art as a description/mirror of a commonly shared world. In creating a new experience, I think you aim more toward creating a totality, by which I mean internally consistent rules in a poem. But maybe not — I’m reaching here. Finnegan’s Wake always seems to provoke this. Let’s get out of this digression, shall we?)
Let’s try again. I propose that opacity is a disconnect between intent and interpretation. Under this theory, there could perhaps be good opacity and bad. Good opacity is intended to frustrate, let the reader probe a little, bang their head, free associate, or just read the surface (ie, enjoy the sound, the visual of the poem). With bad opacity, the writer intended something that never quite surfaces to the reader. (“You want me to get the night sky out of this poem? I showed it to 60 friends and they saw nothing of the sort.”) But this theory is probably unsatisfactory in a number of cases. Nothing complicates this distinction more than Surrealism. Frank O’Hara shows why in Why I Am Not a Painter.
Complete opacity is impossible. Nothing is free of the tyranny of theory and interpretation. Wait, let me start over. Opacity exists everywhere always. Everything I say and write, every quale intuited, is ultimately private and unconnected with the world. The best I can hope for is to make you think we share something.