poetry, as opaque as it wants to be?

Jared and Dave have already grappled with the question of opacity in poetry with far more eloquence than I’ll be able to muster here, but what a good question! And one that touches on some of the issues that have impacted the way that I think about poetry in the past few years.

Dave writes in his post, “The poem is both question and answer. But a question and answer that only occur in the reader.” To me, this means that a poem can be as opaque as it wants to be, and so long as the individual reader derives some kind of feeling from the poem, it has succeeded in connecting with the reader. This connection is, I think, the main achievable thing that poetry can do.

But! If the goal in writing a poem is to connect with the reader, it can become difficult to write without keeping an imaginary reader in mind. The trick of thinking too much about imaginary reader r in mind is that eventually one might start to wonder, why write a poem at all? I think poetry should be reserved for things that can only be expressed in poems. If I can figure out a way to say what I want to say in prose, I should probably go ahead and do that. So keeping the reader in mind as I write is a sure path to a flat-footed poem, or none at all.

Since I began exploring journalism, not thinking about the reader too much has become a major stumbling block. When I’m writing an article or book review, I’m attempting to anticipate questions the reader might ask and answer them clearly and succinctly; not exactly the recipe for creative verse.

Maybe the solution is to write blindfolded to the future, with no articulable goals in mind, and hope that when real-life reading does take place, “implicit comprehension” will arise. And if it doesn’t, revision is the time for me to dig the reader a couple of secret passages.

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4 responses to “poetry, as opaque as it wants to be?

  1. All,

    There’s some really interesting stuff re: opacity and the more general method of poetry being tossed around here. I’m concerned about David’s note that “the poem is both question and answer… that only occur in the reader,” though. It demonstrates a post-structuralist view, handing the baton off to the reader to construct the poem’s meaning. As far as I can tell, the refusal to assign intended meaning is a conceit the poet makes when he/she embraces opacity fully.

    That’s fine enough, I suppose–a fair amount of contemporary poetry adopts this philosophy–but I’m more inclined to believe that the trend does more harm than good. In an article from back in 2000, Michael McIrwin worries that poems have become “so private, so solipsistic in their imagery, that they are virtually meaningless for any reader.” I agree, and I believe that as the poet pares away narrative, penetrability, form, and ostensibly intended meaning, he/she is left with only the ‘trick’ or ‘device’ the poem is trying to employ. The poem has sacrificed authorial intention in favor of infinite interpretation, has embraced opacity, and–worst case scenario–has left the reader with an unreadable poem.

    I don’t mean to condemn opacity outright, even if it seems that way. I use it, the history or poetic tradition confirms its validity, and I believe poems needs at least a dose of it to work. But I worry that as contemporary poets continue their love affair with opacity, they will lose non-poets as readers; in time, only poets will be willing to put forth the effort to untangle poetry.

  2. This is really fair-minded. There are a few things I want to talk about:

    First, I think I agree with you that there is a sort of cynical aspect to opacity. The handing off of the baton, in this. And I worry about that a lot in my writing. Most of my favorite authors are people who could not possibly write more differently than I do, and that isn’t something I understand.

    Second, I want to talk about this “untangle.” I was in the bizarre situation of teaching poetry to high schoolers for a while, and I spent a long time wrestling with the idea of how to teach them to like poetry. Which led me to ask myself why I like it. And there’s usually a sort of automatic balance sheet in the head of a student that asks, “What is the value of this?” Which means I have to ask myself that question also.

    The methods as they existed were clearly not working, something apparent to all of those people who went to school and either hated poetry or couldn’t care about it less. My thought in recent years has been that poetry should be totally accessible, but the kicker is that it’s not in the way they expect. That’s what I run into. The kind of poem I want to make, and the kind of poetic mind I was trying to foster, is a totally open one. Unafraid, of course, since there’s nothing to lose. But as I’ve sort of followed this idea, I realized that there’s no way to read “poems.” There are just ways to read a “poem,” all by itself, simmering in its own sauce. The poem makes the rules–it’s arrogant and imperative, but the act of writing usually carries a fair bit of that anyway.

    Here’s the problem I keep running into: I want to write a different kind of poem that I think people will really appreciate if they try not to harbor such exacting criteria for what a poem is, but there’s no way to use a poem to explain to the reader how to read itself. That I’ve found so far. I’d really appreciate if you had a chance to look at some of the poems I’ve put up here; I’d like your thoughts.

  3. This concept of teaching a reader how to read the poem within the poem itself is an interesting concept, and I think it’s universally present in all writing. In the first few lines of a poem, or the first few paragraphs of an essay, or the first few pages of a novel, you teach a reader how your work is to be read. Most readers do not know this process is going on; it’s a subconscious mechanism. And if you follow the rules that you set out in those first few lines, then the reader will feel a sort of smoothness of texture and the reading of the text will not be jarring. It will be jarring if you break those rules. If you write a paragraph in lower-class British diction and rhythm, but then start throwing around clearly American words, you’ll just confuse your reader in a not so good way.

    Of course, there are ways to use that jarring to your advantage. My favorite example is James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” — the ending line “I have wasted my life.” is simply shocking and appropriate given the rule of calm lull observation set up by the preceding lines. But the jarring effect is used for a purpose; it’s not simply the result of bad poetry. The point is the authorial control and intent over the laying out and manipulation of the rules of readership.

    It seems like you are suggesting, Dave, that poetry shouldn’t necessarily raise the prospect of “detanglement.” Maybe you are describing a way to let a reader know — from within the poem — that they do not need to assume you are alluding to something (Greek mythology, other usual poetic sources) or even describing anything fixed in reality.

    I think your best poems in this opaque style are often teasingly close to a static interpretation, but ultimately fail to correlate one to one with something. In a way, this is when your poems are most like a symphonic movement: you can detect mood, and perhaps from the title a subject, but it’s never so definite that you could exact a static interpretation even from your authorial perspective (that’s at least what I’ve gathered from talking with you about them). As an example, could I make a request for a post of the “defender of the throng, pretender to the throne” poem? (Now that I think about it, there are a number of poems from that time period that I think get at this symphonic style of quasi-opacity, quasi-meaning. But maybe I’m biased because some of those poems tend toward being explicit (as opposed to implicit, get your head out of the gutter).

  4. Pingback: The Good and the Bad « No Record Press: The Blog

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