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.


Agnes said...

Where is the divine law that says a poem must make sense? Is that one of the 10 commandments? If it is, Lewis Carroll must be in Hell.

Meter makes no sense to me. Iamb trochee anapest poo. It may never make sense to me. Just a bunch more weird rules to break at will. I'm not sure my handicap matters to anyone beyond those with a foot fetish.

I like poetry. That doesn't change the fact that most poetry sucks. Life is poetry, but poetry is not life. Is it? I don't know. I'm just a simple Agnes. What would I know about poetry or prestige. Not much, I suppose.

Still waters run deep.

Look 'e there, Richard. Ain't a 3-syllable word to be seen in that last sentence. Wonder who came up with that little adage. Reckon he wrote haiku?

Did you ever read my poem
A Little Giddy (for T.S. Eliot)? Can you tell me what it means? I forget.

RHE said...

I don't know who said it first. In 2 Henry VI Shakespeare wrote,

Smooth runs the water where the brook is deep,

which is close.

Agnes said...

Yes. Close. And still no 3-syllable words. Heh.

I found this http://www.answers.com/topic/still-waters-run-deep-1

I like the third one:

Where riuers runne most stilly, they are the deepest.
[1616 T. Draxe Adages 178]

Stilly, I be feelin'.