There’s an interesting commentary by Hugo Williams in this week’s TLS that comes at the question of transparence and obscurity from a practical slant. He’s talking about the fact that his poems are often short.
“’What’s the matter?’ said Wilko Johnson, a musician, who, admittedly, always fills up his tracks with music. ‘Couldn’t you think of anything else to put?’ He has a point. Often I can’t. Or rather, I can’t think of the other thing which might be made to lean up against the initial burst of activity like a kind of dream neighbour. I love it when a poet takes a risk and hands you something impossible which you have to deal with on your own. The spark which jumps across the opposing terminals delivers a participative shock, which is poetry’s secret weapon. Who did that? You did! Unfortunately the times when the two halves ‘pay back’ are rare; more usually the leap seems fanciful, a try-on, so you put the second part on a new page and call it a new poem.”
Or you don’t. You let it stand and trust to the reader to make some sense of it when there’s a good chance the pay off will be inadequate to the effort, simply because you haven’t worked hard enough, you were being self indulgent, or as Williams suggests, your original impulse was slightly off base.
The ‘jump across opposing terminals’ doesn’t just happen at key structural moments, of course. In some poems every line is a leap of faith, every image, allusion or metaphor a hurdle, either because the source material is impossibly obscure or impossibly personal. The impossibly obscure category shrinks daily as cultural source material is so readily available that anyone with access to the internet can figure out just about any reference to anything that actually comes from the collective culture. A student approaching The Wasteland, for the first time, for example, could easily improve on Eliot’s own notes in a few hours. Even allusions that could reasonably be expected to belong to the collective unconscious are traceable, but no-one except your therapist can be expected to know that the ‘whip stitch’d boat shoes’ in your poem stand in for the fact that your dad regularly beat the daylights out of you when he took you out in the motorsailer on Sunday afternoons, and it’s just not cricket if the poem makes no sense without that titbit of information.
Joseph Hutchison's March 26th blog entry on Ivan Blatny provides a perfect example both of the structural neighbour from hell jump and the deliberately obscure one. Blatny may have had insanity as an excuse but we’ll bracket that and just look at the poem, which is a short one.
So restoration is not spelled au
I spelled it so thinking of the czech word restaurace
and go with a lady to the Room
like a unicorn in the mirror
all naked in the mirrors
so that I could see the blood trickling.
Hutchison’s analysis is a much more rewarding read than the poem itself, and includes a defence of the work as well, but the main points are that leap from the discussion of a spelling error to the going somewhere with an unknown lady bit, and then the opacity of the images in the last four lines. It’s possible there is a connection between the two parts, and it’s possible that the images are directly related to it – perhaps the young Blatny failed a spelling quiz in eighth grade and his teacher took him into the next room and caned him till he bled, which reminded him of the school play, a version of Equus, starring unicorns instead of horses, set in the hall of mirrors at Versailles and directed by said teacher, because the English teacher always directs the play - it’s possible, but it’s not relevant or fair. The reader has no way of knowing what Blatny’s ‘tics’ or the poem mean, regardless of what Johannes Goransson claims to the contrary, and any guesses he might make won’t repay his efforts with comprehension. There’s no “participative shock,” as Williams puts it. Poetry, like religion, requires a certain degree of comfort in the presence of the unknowable, but it shouldn’t expect its devotees to live in complete darkness and isolation.
Reginald Shepherd talks, in a recent entry on his blog, about the unavoidable and legitimate difficulty of poetry addressing complex subjects and mentions Eliot’s remark that true poetry communicates before it is understood. He gives the example of reading Prufrock for the first time and says that it was the feeling of the poem, its language and emotions that led to a desire to understand it. Eliot however didn’t shirk the surely primary responsibility of actually being understandable once the effort was made. Shepherd uses the examples of Sudoku and crossword puzzles as an indication of the willingness of people to engage in considerable mental effort to no really practical end, but I think it’s highly unlikely that anyone without the incentive of professional or academic interest is going to expend as much effort on a poem as they would on a crossword puzzle. I’m not saying they have their priorities in order, I’m just saying it’s so. Hutchison could have done a month of Sundays worth of puzzles in the time he took to come up almost empty handed on ‘Misspelled.’ For most readers the ‘pay back’ has to be better than that. Yeats put it well.
The fascination of what's difficult
Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent
Spontaneous joy and natural content
Out of my heart.
He was ostensibly talking about theatre but the warning also applies here. It’s a sad end for a poetry lover.