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Clarity and Obscurity in Poetry

Written by

Sven Birkerts
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If, with Ms. Moore, many out there too dislike it, this may have less to do with gardens and toads and more with the simple fear of difficulty. Not difficulty for itself, necessarily—though that may be part of it—but for what it suggests to the reader about his or her inadequacy in the face of meaning. This was my first thought, anyway, as I started to think toward moderating a panel on the topic of "Clarity and Obscurity in Poetry" with Carl Phillips, Kay Ryan, and James Tate. I looked right past the signpost of the stated title, which struck me as a subhead to the issue I wanted to address—I mean "getting it," with obscurity just one of the obstacles to the desired comprehension, and clarity only one of its avenues of access. Difficulty bears directly on the question of meaning. Indeed, I would say that difficulty is the friction that accompanies all the attempts we make on meaning. Whatever that is: Clearly, our discussion would not be venturing more than provisional swipes at that immensity.

Panel Members

The taxonomy of difficulty is as vast as the available poetic instances, which are many and various, from the poetry of Paul Muldoon to that of Ezra Pound, or T. S. Eliot, or Louis Zukofsky, or Paul Celan, or Gerard Manley Hopkins, or Anne Carson, or John Ashbery, not to mention the work of my three co-panelists. There is the difficulty of syntax, reference, image, idea, and metaphysical reach and of course the difficulty inherent in that which is to be expressed. Difficulty, I would say, maps itself obediently to the contours of our interpreted world, hugs it like plastic wrap. And then of course there is the question of vantages: difficulty as experienced and expressed by the poet in the making and that experienced by the reader in her reading. Intentional obscurity? A whole other issue, one that I hoped we would get to.

Carl Phillips spoke first, acknowledging the taxonomic issue and then immediately asserting the reader's need to commit to what Phillips called the terms of engagement of the work in question, taking the poem on its own terms. He offered this engagement, which I had conceived as the friction, as a way to physically take hold of the text. That which is instantly gotten, it would seem, does not have a chance to put its hooks into us. But obscure, Phillips insisted, does not mean unavailable; often it means merely hidden, with the reader's challenge being to unlock the hidden level.

He illustrated his points with two examples. The first was Shakespeare's "The expense of spirit" sonnet, which, as he pointed out, consists of one 12-line sentence, fairly convoluted in its syntax, leading to a second, the closing couplet, which in its straightforward clarity enacts a movement of arrival and recognition. The structure mimes the mental movement it characterizes; the contortions of phrasing ("Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;") are necessary to the final epigrammatic effect, its punch: "All this the world well knows; yet none knows well / To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell."

Carl Phillips

He then spoke of his experience with Elizabeth Bishop's "The Fish," a poem in which, at first reading, he found very little happening. A fish is caught, then released—full stop. But after dismissing the poem for some years, Phillips gradually recognized how the details and associations create a secondary density and profundity of implication, one that finally won him to recognitions he had not anticipated, including a deepened awareness of interiority. The poem had seemed transparent, said Phillips, but in fact it is quite dense. Where the Shakespeare sonnet carries the reader from a syntactically impacted complexity to a clarified formulation, "The Fish" works in the other direction—just two instances of the many ways that clarity and obscurity have bedeviled and enlivened an attentive poet's reading of a poem.

Kay Ryan led off by quoting Marianne Moore's declaration: "I have a mania for straight writing," which she used as an epigraph for her own poem "Say It Straight." She read the poem. Moore, said Ryan, prized complexity but distinguished between "good" complexity, which expresses a fidelity to the nature of reality itself, and "bad," which sought to obfuscate. For herself, the poet avowed, "clarity is an ideal to which we can aspire safely," the implication being that life will forever frustrate any full realization. She then spoke of her sense of there being a kind of "cheesecloth" between all of us, which makes her determined to send her signal "as strongly and clearly" as she possibly can. "To use a word," she added, "is to take a step into a jungle of forking paths," and achieving clarity by way of words would seem to be a contradiction in terms. Ryan concluded by reading Robert Frost's short "Dust of Snow," a poem she maintained is utterly clear in its surface presentation yet contains something other, a mystery. "Its clarity points to something that isn't rational."

James Tate

James Tate, for his part, contrasted Hart Crane's early book White Buildings—which he sees as containing a good deal of obscurity, "covered by elaborate workings of sound"—with Crane's later work The Bridge, a work he claims to have read five hundred times and that he vouches is "all there" in terms of its sense structure. Crane's earlier effort, Tate believes, did not aim for obscurity so much as overwork the language "aiming for some ultimate music." He wondered, "Does a poet ever strive for obscurity?" and then answered almost right away: "I can't think of who would." He then allowed the possibility of a poet's seeking to actualize multiple layers of meaning in a work, an ambition that could be mistaken for such a deliberation. Crane would be a case in point.

It was my notion, then, to present the poets with a poem or passage of their own—something I chose because it illustrated one or another kind of difficulty—and to ask them to comment. I began with the first six lines of Carl Phillips's "Sea Glass," which had on first reading struck me as at once rhythmically tantalizing and semantically elusive:

It's cold here, in the wind. Night fog. We can

leave if you like. Moral landscapes, coming down
as usual to a foreground all agony, pursuant
joy, more agony, a lesson
                       insisting hypnotically,
grass-like, wave-like, ever on itself—

The poet responded with gratifying clarity, explaining, in a way that recalled his discussion of the Shakespeare sonnet, how the stacked-up clauses of the poem's fourth sentence pave the way for the sudden fog-clearing revelation: "this time, / it's not like that." The poem, Phillips explained, was in part about an exhaustion with the murky ambiguities of mental life, an injunction to the simplicities—if not simplifications—of desire.

With her kind assent, I then read out Kay Ryan's short poem "Waste," a section of which follows:

Nothing is exempt
from resurrection.
It is tiresome
how the grass
re-ripens, greening
all along the punched
and mucked horizon
once the bison have moved on,
leaning into hunger
and hard luck.

Diction and syntax could not be more straightforward here, but I confessed myself hung up on the intellectual crux, the shift from "nothing is exempt / from resurrection" to "It is tiresome / how the grass / re-ripens." I get the sense immediately, but not the emotion, or worldview, which could be said to underlie the sense. Ryan reminded us that resurrection need not be deemed an automatic positive. "I hate resurrection," she averred (presumably having tried it), adding, "it makes me sad to think that everything comes back." And "this is the kind of poem a tired person writes. It's to be understood by those kind of people." With this explanation, the poem made perfect sense. A simple mental shift, a revaluation of assumptions, was enough to change my outlook and understanding altogether. That one might not aspire to more existence—I hadn't considered it.

After, I read out James Tate's "Brittle Family Photographs" and cited the whimsical nature of its ending:

Then I met Dierdre in the cafeteria, and she said,
"Mr. President, you're doing a great job." "What
did you call me?" I said. "Mr. President," she
said. "How time pisses away," I said. "I can
hear the birdies singing." My eye was on the

The poet seemed benignly irritated by my choice of the adjective whimsical, countering that to him the poem was more grim than anything else. I was, he said, of course entitled to my own reading. I was about to question how seriously anything using the proper noun Jell-O could be taken, but Carl Phillips saved me from certain embarrassment by citing Stanley Kunitz's belief that poems can contain "moments of wilderness"—lines that don't necessarily themselves make sense but which, when taken away, impoverish the work. "My eye was on the / Jell-O," he suggested, was such a "moment." Phillips then ventured, as he had at the outset, that reading a poem is an act of faith, at times requiring that we abandon the self to something that defies absolute proof. Or dispense with irritable reaching, I thought. What is true for Jell-O, it seems, is true as well for the larger enterprise of culling sense from expressions that are as complexly and delightfully various as the world they address.

The panel discussion described in this essay took place at the Poets Forum on October 20, 2007, presented by the Academy of American Poets. For more information on the Poets Forum and photos and video from the events, please visit: www.poets.org/poetsforum.

Photos by Star Black