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?

How to be a critic – or not

When I write, I occasionally think in terms of mechanics like structure.  Generally, though, I’m sort of a gut writer, meaning that an idea pops into my head from god knows where, and I sit down and start writing.  I write until I can’t.  Then I mope about until more ideas from the ether inject themselves.  I write some more, stop some more, and so it goes until the thing resolves itself.  Those of you who have read my posts on this blog are probably not terribly surprised at this revelation.

I do revise, of course, and over the years of reading and writing I’ve internalized the rules of style and structure to the point where they function at the same level as the rules of grammar.  This is a nice way to operate, as it leaves me free to flit about like a butterfly and not think about rules until I’m ready to break them.  Which, come to think of it, is rather a lot, like right now.  On the other hand, thinking about them tends to send me off on a tangent, like right now. I have a friend who delights in finding obscure, forgotten poetry and reviving it.  This usually involves precise meter and line counts, cryptic messages, and rhyme schemes that blow right through the alphabet.  She whips up these delectable tiered confections as easily as if they were Aunt Jemima’s Buttermilk Pancakes, with absolutely no apparent sacrifice of spontaneity or evocative power.  I love what she does, but I’m afraid I’m better at granola, myself.

Anyway, I’m telling you about my writing habit to explain why I’m a lousy critic:  because the art of criticism involves re-externalizing all that stuff I’ve spent a lifetime internalizing.  Worse yet, it makes you read through all that scaffolding out where you can see it.  From a lit-crit point of view, I’m a terrible reader.  I take characters at face value.  I don’t care what Achilles symbolizes, he’s a jerk.  In short, I cheerfully fall for all the author’s tricks and traps.  I squirm and get crabby when people start talking about the true meanings of things in literature.  I want that stuff to soak in slowly, naturally, the way a gentle rain permeates the soil after a dry spell.  If I fancied a swill I’d get Cliff’s Notes.

I used to have an on-going argument with a friend, no longer with us, whose specialty was lengthy exposition of all the bits and pieces and hidden meanings of films.  Our disagreement concerned jokes.  I maintained that while you could get some pleasure from a joke that had to be explained to you, it could never match the pleasure of “getting” it spontaneously.  He insisted just as adamantly that it could, and that I was a heartless elitist, and probably a fascist swine to boot, to insist otherwise.  I put  poetry, mythology, and most other literature in the same category as jokes in that regard.  It’s fine, of course, to re-read, re-hear, and take as long as you like to reach that moment of enlightenment, but, to me, explanation diminishes it.

The upshot is, I can’t be counted on for clever comments, as a rule.  If you see something along the lines of, “The lyric keeps an outward appearance of spontaneity, but it is inevitably inflected with an awareness of its impermanence,” you’ll know it ain’t me.  My comment is more likely to be something like “That was grand!  You’re so good at that.” or some other such insightful remark.  Don’t get me wrong.  It’s vital to my craft to know how to put the erector set together, and I even enjoy reading critical essays about literature in general, that is, about some aspect of it, rather than some particular work of it.  Then I find room internally for that information, and move on.

You know how you spend a week in some hotel, and unpack everything from your suitcase?  I’m pretty sure that if I ever objectified writing to the point that I could do an adequate job of criticism, I could never get it all crammed back into the suitcase.  At least that’s my fear.