Some Thoughts on Clarity in Poetry

I am presently about halfway through Theodore Roethke’s Collected Poems, a book on my February MFA reading list. Reading a Collected is always an interesting ride during which you get to accompany the poet on his or her own developmental journey. Reading Roethke’s Collected so far has been somewhat of a rollercoaster:

  • Open House, 1941: Well-written, slightly starchy poems in meter and rhyme, often using nature as a metaphor for man’s dealings with the world. A bit uphill going.
  • The Lost Son & Other Poems, 1948: Hmm, breaking out into free verse here a little. Some highly memorable (and well-anthologized) poems like “My Papa’s Waltz”  and “Root Cellar”…the car appears to be rocking…Here’s a poem called “The Lost Son.” Oh my God. We’re going over the top! Raise your arms and scream: what’s going on?
  • Praise to the End, 1951: What was that, a corkscrew?
  • The Waking, 1953: Mmm, back to meter and form. Thank God that’s over, although, things don’t feel quite so stuffy any more…

I jest of course, except, that is a bit what it feels like. And so I’d ask the question, is there anyone here who honestly prefers the book Praise to the End to The Waking? If so, please explain. Isn’t it natural as a reader to want poems to make a little sense?

Now, before anyone rises up in arms against me, let me elaborate. I don’t actually mind working a little for the meaning of a poem, as you will already know if you read my previous essay on Paul Muldoon. Indeed, I was so frustrated by the refusal of “The Lost Son” to make sense for me that I did a great deal of Googling, reread the poem about ten times, and now it does, indeed, make enough sense for me to be pleased with it, not as poetry in its own right but more like a fellow-soldier with whom I’ve recently survived a life-changing ordeal.

However, after said ordeal I was too exhausted to tackle the other long poems which follow “The Lost Son,” or to do more than read through Praise to the End twice, with an unattractive bemused look on my face. Then it was with huge relief that I found the safe haven of the poems in The Waking — “The Visitant,” “A Light Breather,” “Elegy for Jane,” “Old Lady’s Winter Words,” “Four for Sir John Davies (especially 4. The Vigil)” and the title poem are all pieces I could immediately love.

I don’t really want to confine this discourse to Roethke. I’ve read enough now I think to understand what he was trying to do during this surreal period, and if I don’t think he accomplished it, then at least I can see it as a stage in the evolution of a truly great poet. It’s also clear that he suffered from depression and psychiatric illness, and perhaps these poems ARE descriptive of such states in ways I can only begin to imagine.

What I want to do is take issue against contemporary poets who use Roethke’s surrealism as a justification for their own inpenetrable poetry, having begun there, and with no clear intention to move anywhere from there. I suppose this could be seen as an attack on Language poetry, but it isn’t meant to be. My understanding is that language poetry is deliberately designed to make no sense whatsoever (Correct me if I am wrong.) I don’t like it much, but I don’t distrust it. My problem with the type of poetry that frustrates me, is that the poet appears to be claiming it does make sense, or at least should waft some sense in your general direction. In such poems there is typically a first person narrator experiencing something, but what is it?

It’s the Roethkian trick of using regular sentence constructions, only exchanging parts of speech e.g. “Mamma, she’s a sad fat” or using correct syntax but producing nonsense constructs e.g. “I’m a biscuit. I’m melted already,” which are so carelessly overused in this type of work.

Here’s an example, from “Victory” by Ann Lauterbach. (Note: I have nothing against Ann, and this is the only poem of hers I have read – she may well be highly lucid elsewhere.)

The body does not appear; enthusiastically, the guitar strums.

Shoes wander; vertiginous ascent, pathology of disorder

in which nothing is under the overlay

of a high-velocity near. The kids are on their snowmobiles.

I could kill them. I could speak of killing the kids

and not mean it. I could kill the snowmobiles

and ask the kids to look at the copulating

dolls hung from threads

and then at solace.

Again, I don’t mind working for meaning. In the same source (American Poet: The Journal of the Academy of American Poets, Fall 2005) I was favorably struck by Matthew Zapruder’s “What I Need,” which is a long way from being direct language. Here’s an excerpt:

At night the lamps

come automatically on.

This is always somewhat unexpected,

like a picture I hand

of when you are happy

to you. With my hand

lifted slightly I slowed

the trains, back into

the crook of my arm

you fell lunar

and heavy and dreamed.

Now perhaps, if I could fast-forward 50 years into the future I could Google Ann Lauterbach and discover what aspect of her childhood produced those macabre “copulating dolls, hung from threads” the way I learned about TR’s obsession with greenhouses alongside the trauma of his father’s death and uncle’s suicide. Matthew Zapruder’s poem, on the other hand, is interesting enough to demand re-reading, and generous enough to deliver a meaning after one has done so a few times.

Please, please, please Editors and Cognoscenti and Literati, do not be distracted by sleights of hand. My eight year old recently read “The Emperor’s New Clothes” for the first time; her favorite part was where the seamstress convinces the emperor the clothes are made with invisible thread. Let us not be conned by poems made with invisible thread but demand stitches we can see by straining the naked eye. Let us ensure that poetry shines like water – a substance which the right techniques can always make clear.


One Comment

  1. Dogger Banks

    Right on, sister. Inscrutable poems just put lay-people off. Unfortunately, having grown up with such work, many writers now seem to
    think muddiness is the sine qua non of poetry.
    Clarity now!

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