Folk who write poetry are interested in stress-testing the language almost to destruction, to determine the poundage it can bear before it cracks.
Sometimes I feel that my literary tastes are locked into the Nineteenth Century and before. My recent post on Farley and Roberts’s book Death of the Poets has reminded me of my problem with modern poetry, something I’ve been avoiding recently. I may have to take another look: until I do, this republished sequence explains clearly where and why I got stuck before. This is the first of four relatively brief posts on the subject.
After examining briefly some possible reasons for supposing a puzzle is good for a poem and looking at the risks that being too puzzling entails, in this sequence of posts I am going to consider one or two examples of where, for me, the puzzles destroy the poems.
The way to inspiration lies through an intuitive examination of the physical world because everything means helplessly more than itself.
He quotes the poet Charles Wright in support:
To look hard at something, to look through it, is to transform it,
Convert it into something beyond itself, to give it grace.
(Looking Around III)
This sits well with mystical ideas such as those in the Writings of the Bahá’í Faith:
Every created thing in the whole universe is but a door leading into His knowledge, a sign of His sovereignty, a revelation of His names, a symbol of His majesty, a token of His power, a means of admittance into His straight Path. . . .
(Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh: LXXXII)
(The link to the post below on A World in a Grain of Sand explores this further).
But can the wrenching of language he refers to, which is presumably meant to serve this end, go too far?
John Fuller, a poet I have greatly enjoyed reading, discusses this problem in his engaging book Who is Ozymandias? (and other puzzles in poetry). He helped me to see where my problem lies though I do not share his exact point of view.
He has a very positive take on puzzles (op cit: page 3):
We know very well that most obscurities in poetry soon or eventually begin to respond to the light of the reader’s intelligence, and that it is an intrinsic part of the pleasure of’ poetry to be able to unravel difficulties and to solve puzzles.
He does though acknowledge that this comfortable relationship with such puzzles as poetry poses can break down rather badly (ibid):
Despite this comforting principle, there are a few problems about wilful obscurity in poetry, and I shall deal with some of them in the course of this book. For the moment it remains to examine a little further the reader’s relationship with the poet who is responsible for the puzzles that for a time confound him. Is the poet in some sense a superior person to the reader, leading him on just for the sake of it? Is it possible that the poet sometimes doesn’t know what he is doing and is asking for some sort of mindless complicity on the reader’s part? Is it all serious and worthwhile or is it a pointless game? Such needling questions are often, I believe, lurking behind the reader’s occasional impatience with poetry, and though they may be irritating to poets, it is important that they be addressed.
When I am confronted by much modern poetry, these questions rarely go away for me and I am often irritated. I experience what he describes as ‘brick wall moments’ more often than he does, it seems (op cit: pages 10-11):
Still, the puzzles in Thomas are often enticing enough to require our attention. If we can find more meaning in them than we suspected was there, we dignify the poem. If it is in some sense more our own meaning than the poet’s, we are usually generous enough to wish to share it with the poet, as though we could let him know that his own half-conscious instincts have been successful. In the matter of intention, we want to give the poet the benefit of all doubt. And he, in turn, is felt to sanction our interpretation. Until, that is, we encounter the brick-wall moment when we may temporarily concede the puzzle. The reader will probably recollect experiences of this unhappy state of affairs, perhaps with the work of early Thomas or late Hill, perhaps much of the time with John Ashbery (though these are by no means extreme cases).
It may be no coincidence that I gave up doing the Guardian Crossword at more or less the same time as I resumed an intense interest in poetry. I’m pretty sure I went to poetry for satisfactions altogether different from those provided by crossword puzzles.
Fuller discusses many poems. In the next post, I’ll take one of those poems, one that isn’t hugely puzzling but where, apart from its bleak theme, the puzzle seems to be its main attraction, before moving on, in the the third post on this issue, to another poem where the puzzle seems about all there is to the poem. Neither example is as taxing as those written by the poets he singles out above. Incidentally, I’d add Basil Bunting to my list of brick-wall poets: interestingly, Fuller doesn’t even mention him.
I’ll throw in a good poem in each post just to ease the pain a bit, but be ready for a headache none the less. Bring an aspirin.
- A World in a Grain of Sand
- The Experience of Poetry (1/2): dimming the glare of language
- The Experience of Poetry (2): edges of unease