Tuesday, October 14, 2008


An email from an annoyed reader who encountered my latest poem ("Manifest Destiny"), complaining of its obscurity. The burden of her grievance is that I must do it on purpose, to show off in some way--to show that I'm superior to ordinary readers or that I know big words (perhaps I have sesquipedalian longings) or that I'm trying to attract attention for bad things because I don't deserve it for good.

It is an old, old plaint. When I hear it, I think, as I so often do, of Jarrell and his "The Obscurity of the Poet," one of my favorite passages of which goes,

If we were in the habit of reading poets their obscurity would not matter; and, once we are out of the habit, their clarity does not help. Matthew Arnold said, with plaintive respect, that there was hardly a sentence in Lear that he hadn't needed to read two or three times...You and I can afford to look at Stalky and Company, at Arnold, with dignified superiority: we know what those passages mean; we know that Shakespeare is never obscure, as if he were some modernist poet gleefully pasting puzzles together in his garret. Yet when we look at a variorum Shakespeare--with its line or two of text at the top of the page, its forty or fifty lines of wild surmise and quarrelsome conjecture at the bottom--we are troubled.

The truth is, my correspondent doesn't really like poetry. I suspect that is true of almost all the people I encounter in poetry places on the Web. They are there for other reasons--good reasons, bad reasons, their own reasons--and those rarely have anything to do with a life filled with the sound of Hopkins and Browning and Landor, Greville and Raleigh and Sidney. They need to pass some time. They require company. They need to be noticed. They need to be healed. They want to feel in touch with matters of aesthetics; and poetry still carries with it shreds and tatters of prestige--as long as you don't look at it too closely or dirty your hands with crumbly old iambs and messy tropes.