poetic obscurity feedback loop

Misleading presuppositions about the nature of poetry are not just a problem for young readers. Many young poets, however, confuse being deliberately obscure with creating a deeper mystery. Good poets do not deliberately complicate something just to make it harder for a reader to understand. Unfortunately, young readers, and young poets too, are taught to think that this is exactly what poets do. This has, in turn, created certain habits in the writing of contemporary poetry. Bad information about poetry in, bad poetry out, a kind of poetic obscurity feedback loop. It often takes poets a long time to unlearn this. Some never do. They continue to write in this way, deliberately obscure and esoteric, because it is a shortcut to being mysterious. The so-called effect of their poems relies on hidden meaning, keeping something away from the reader.

I don’t know what writers of stories, novels and essays eventually discover for themselves, but I can say that sooner or later poets figure out that there are no new ideas, only the same old ones — and that nobody who loves poetry reads it to be impressed, but to experience and feel and understand in ways only poetry can conjure.

I’m sympathetic to young poets who feel a strong impulse to disguise what they’re saying. Early in my life as a poet, I, too, had trouble being direct. I felt self-conscious, as if I needed to demonstrate my talent with the art in every line. It took me a long time to get over this feeling, and it was only when I did that I started to write poetry that was any good.

- Matthew Zapruder, from his essay "Understanding Poetry Is More Straightforward Than You Think" (an excerpt from his forthcoming Why Poetry?) in The New York Times. You can read the whole thing here.


Anonymous said...

Hmm. Trouble is, I see obscurity in many well-established (respected) poets. It's not obscurity for obscurity's sake: it's the deep need to be original, to say something in a way no one has quite approached before. I do it myself. Far more than I did twenty years ago. Back then I strove for clarity, but clarity doesn't seem to get the kudos for most of us these days. Yes, I think "the portal to the strange is the literal" for someone like Jack Gilbert, but there's only one Jack. That portal is the eye of a very fine needle.

Rob Taylor said...

Someone commented on a blog! Amazing! It's like it's 2009 all over again!

I think Zapruder would probably agree with you, Anonymous. His line "Many young poets, however, confuse being deliberately obscure with creating a deeper mystery" seems to chime with your "It's not obscurity for obscurity's sake". Maybe it comes down to semantics - the difference between "complexity" and "obscurity": both resist "clarity" but one does so to greater ends, the other as a means of hiding itself.

And I agree there's only one Jack (of course!) but I don't think the only means of satiating a "Deep need to be original" is through intentional obscurity. Likewise, that clarity is out of style is no reason to abandon it.

I'm glad you did something else that's "out of style" and commented on a blog, whoever you are!