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What’s the point?

I’ve been reading a lot of complicated, obscure poetry lately.  The ultimate goal of poetry must be to communicate, not just clearly, but as directly as possible.  The trouble is that the urge to communicate often clashes with the urge to be clever.  How does this happen?

Poetry aims for the most effective, impactful communication by evoking a sensation or emotion directly in the reader, rather than through simple assertion.  For example, one could say, “We certainly have a difficult relationship!”  Or, as Emily Dickinson said,

For each ecstatic instant
We must an anguish pay
In keen and quivering ratio
To the ecstasy.

The objective is gained through unusual language, and deft juxtapositioning.  So what often happens is that the technique is mistaken for the message.  It’s like looking at a Chagall painting and getting all caught up in the pretty colors.

It’s there, no doubt about it, but it’s a vehicle.  If it’s not carrying anything, or if the blinding technique obscures the message to the point of invisibility, what’s the point?

Is “Jeez, you’re clever,” all there is to art?

It is possible, of course, that the message is so complex, or so sublime, that it absolutely requires obscurity.  Or that the very act of cracking open a difficult poem evokes that which is meant by it.  In my experience, however, that happens much more rarely than pointless obscurantism.

What do you think?

21 thoughts on “What’s the point?

  1. Well you already know what I think! Confusing poetry is like a diving board into a pool of an unknown substance. That might make most people fearful or even disgusted, but it makes me anxious to jump in to see if I’ll get sticky or salty.

    • Understood. But there’s an obligation to make it worthwhile. One hates to dive in and find tepid bathwater. Always accepting the possibility of just not getting it, of course.

      • And what of the “nonsense pastiche” genre? I think it serves a great purpose. Sometimes, you don’t need to “get it.” Maybe you just need a good laugh. Or maybe you get a thrill out of hearing words strung together in an interesting way, regardless of their meaning. That’s my thing. But very few other people are into poetry largely for the way it sounds rolling off the tongue. Buy hey, I’m amazed if there’s a single person who ever enjoys reading even one of my poems.

        • Okay, if it don’t mean a thing up front, I’m ok with that. Some fun, like making stuff with wildly colored construction paper. Good exercise, for sure. Is there a line between fun exercise and POETRY, though? I’m not saying I know…

        • Strangely, this bit of spam came in: “They can be the exceptional ice breakers by visiting nay gathering or party.
          Also, do not overlook about close friends and in addition household.” Nonsense pastiche?

  2. With itch beneath the skin
    like jellyfish their sonar
    obfuscated, I have by
    Omniops’ new topic been
    in recent years abraded.

    Cheap rhyme, I know, but it’s the closest I can come to describing my experience with unintelligible poetry and their generally unintelligible (and, oh my God, defensive!) creators. Life being short and all, I eventually determined that what does not feel good to me probably isn’t good for me either.

    On the other hand, any time that Emily Dickinson is quoted or excerpted–doesn’t matter the topic–her words become my day. They bring with them their own illumination. So thank you for that, and for the opportunity to continue thinking on a fine question.

  3. Obscurity, I suppose, could be relative? The passage you quoted from Emily Dickinson would be considered obscure by some “educated” people I know. But I say if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, then…

  4. A little more optimistic, a bit thornier: I do not often write what I would call poetry: I am nearly shut-in to my world, and use my blog as I need it, like blood transfusions on a battlefield. If the pack contains ichor, so much the better. But I don’t care.
    Dickinson (above) in your post, is an excellent example. The issue, for true poetry, is never obscurantism, but simply, how-out-this-feel/thought comes. The greater the poet, possibly the greater the complexity (probably, not), but certainly, the greater the thud against the moss walls of our hearts. Think of Frost, his “After Apple-Picking”; think of Emily herself, her “Wild Nights!” (surely a super-complex poem if ever there was: doesn’t come close to meaning what it seems to mean, and it all turns on that, “ah,”); lastly, think of cummings “a man who had fallen among thieves.” These people are all sailing tackless on their object, even though we may have to go over their foot prints a thousand times to find their gait. There is no such thing as obscure poetry.

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