Poetry and Tags

Rob Mackenzie neatly summarizes and tellingly quotes from a Cleanth Brooks essay here. You need to read Rob's post for the full contextualization of the telling quotation, but here it is anyway (the poem in question is Robert Herrick’s Corinna’s Going a-Maying):

What does this poem communicate? If we are content with the answer that the poem says that we should enjoy youth before youth fades, and if we are willing to write off everything else in the poem as ‘decoration,’ then we can properly censure [modern poets such as] Eliot or Auden or Tate for not making poems so easily tagged. But in that case we are not interested in poetry; we are interested in tags.

This implies that what "modern" poets do is write poetry without such "tags," such simple messages that one can glean from a poem. And note that the three poets Brooks lists as "modern" could not be more different from each other.

What comes to mind for me is something I read sometime last year in which a non-reader of poetry responded to Carol Ann Duffy's poems by calling them "difficult." For readers of contemporary poetry, this is a bit of a shock: one may or may not like Duffy's poems, but they are not difficult (at least not compared to those written by the vast majority of contemporary poets with several books to their names).

But perhaps the difficulty in question is the absence of such "tags."

[Cross-posted, as Joseph D. suggested, from my blog.]

1 comment:

Henry Gould said...

I wonder whether (and if so how much) Modernism's rejection of Victorian "moralism" is a factor in this "lack of tags". If a poem no longer offers a clear, detachable, paraphrasable moral lesson, then even though it provides descriptions & meanings, some readers may not get the "point". & in which case, the passage of time as a clarifier of meaning might not apply.

Has there been a sort of historical oscillation in the history of poetry between "moral drama", on the one hand, and a sort of detached didacticism, on the other? (I'm thinking Elizabethan/Restoration/Romanticism/Victorianism/Modernism as a simple a/b/a/b here... probably just A BIT oversimplified...)

The "moral universes" of these differing historical eras seem to have distinct architectures...