Don Paterson: I do think there's a certain moral obligation towards clarity, because it's an act of communication, isn't it? He said naively. It's two monkeys, and one monkey is trying to say something that's really difficult, and slightly beyond what the language is capable of holding, and is trying to do so by the projection of the principle of equivalence into the syntagm and all that. For that reason alone, I think you're obliged to be as clear as possible. You have a greater obligation to clarity the more complex the idea you're trying to communicate. In terms of the holistic, if your aim is unity and integrity—or at least bringing two ideas together into some kind of genuine synthesis—then you're trying to get, as Hughes says, every word listening to every other word, so the whole structure is self-supporting, a cellular entity. And if you think the point you're making is a moral or ethical one... it strikes me as plainly unethical to present it in language likely to confound the reader. Actually it strikes me as so bleedin' uncontroversial as to be barely worth saying...
Ahren Warner: This is also a position that holds a certain relationship to Modernism, of which you've written elsewhere that one of the 'legacies of Modernism' is a historical trend of poets 'making themselves irrelevant' and an unfortunate paradoxical effect of this on current poets as an imperative to be 'interesting' by which, I think, you were referring towards a tendency towards over-accessibility or over-simplification. I wondered about the distinction, for you, between clarity and simplification?
DP: It's a risk. I mean, I think the risk is sounding simple, simplistic—and Frost, for God knows how long, was dismissed for that very reason. He's blatantly not simple, or anything like it, but that's the risk. I know I've said this before, but I think there's a kind of fruitful risk in also playing it as close to sentimentality as one dares—and maybe a dumb sort of clarity, and adopting an almost pretentious rhetorical height. You fall off the tightrope and make a fool of yourself, but I think you have to risk it. It strikes me that that sort of game is worth playing, because the stakes are a lot higher; potentially you win a lot more in terms of the force of what you communicate, the strength of feeling you can share with or elicit from the reader, the coining of speech that is both familiar and radically destabilizing. But you have to run the risk of looking like a pretentious dick. An idiot. A sentimental buffoon. Many of our late-mod, non-conformist friends never look so silly, but then they risk very little.
But then again... in terms of the Modernist thing... I've got a lot more sympathy than I did even five years ago, because I've been, y'know, speaking to people. Kinsella is eloquent on these matters. I'm not quite the slave to my own prejudices that I used to be. But I still come back to that idea of what kind of work the poem does. The poem can heal, and the poem can also fracture—but in both instances it can present itself as a unity. Its purpose can be to fracture—but I think it fractures more effectively when it's a unity, rather than some kind of... poem-kit that leaves the reader bleeding and covered in glue before they can even start to read it. There are certain kinds of contemporary practice where the stakes are just too low. It depends how you define 'stakes', but I think if you're trying to share stuff with somebody, to move somebody, to propose an idea that we can speak about rather than just laboriously parse and unpack, and then be too knackered to do anything else with—if we're using the poem as more than an excuse to have a conversation about fucking poetry... I think clarity is the way to go.
- Don Paterson, in conversation with Ahren Warner in Poetry London, as posted on Poetry Daily. You can read the whole thing here.
Thanks to Carmine Starnino at the Vehicule Press blog for pointing this interview out... um... two weeks ago. Nothing but breaking news here at silaron these days!