Clarity as Detail
If any single word could be called THE hot-button, marching orders word of our period, it would have to be “clarity.” It’s placed on the backs of books as shorthand for “The poetry in this volume is safe, and NOT elliptical, skittery, post-avant, Language writing, Flarf, Conceptual, and/or etcetera.” So it is with a great deal of wariness that I approached D.H. Tracy's essay, “Six Types of Clarity: Looking beyond New Criticism’s ambiguities,” in the most recent issue of Poetry Magazine:
What I found, in a way, might be the sort of response to, or aesthetic, historical grounding for, that Ron Silliman has long called for in what he terms the School of Quietude. And Tracy starts out with a nod to the fact that clarity is going to be difficult (I would say impossible) to pin down:
“. . . clarity seems doomed to be a comparatively wishy-washy concept. Literature has played a trick on us: clarity is murky, and ambiguity is clear. But clarity’s virtues are so taken for granted that the question of how those virtues might be demonstrable seems like it ought to be within reach. Writing regularly earns praise for admitting relatively little latitude of response—though, in poetry’s case, normally not for that quality alone, which a technical service manual could possess. Writing regularly earns praise for ‘getting out of the way’ and affording a relatively unmediated view of its subject. Considerations of clarity tend to use freighted but inbred sets of words, like ‘rightness,’ ‘inevitability,’ and ‘aptness.’ And accounts of experiencing clarity often have a quasi-mystical turn, describing a sense of simultaneous discernment and ease, an unstrained awareness that, though expanded, does not leave behind the facts of the case.”
One can quickly see the difficulties of the project. It’s going to be pretty close to impossible, after everything we know about the tenuousness of all language to maintain anything approaching a singular meaning in the face of, at the very least, the difficulty of readers. Connotation? Denotation? Difference(s)?
Clarity as the Ambiguous Stacking of Pebbles
So here are the six, in Tracy’s words [I’ve deleted his examples, follow the above link to read the essay in its entirety]:
1. [T]he clarity of inflected metaphor, or metaphor that provides a directive on its own interpretation. Taken one step further than strictly necessary, such a figure includes not just a tenor and a vehicle, but a suggested manner of comparing the two. This manner-of-comparing (or directive, or inflection) tends to restrict the play, in all senses, of metaphor, and so acts to narrow the range of possible interpretations.
2. The second type of clarity follows from the poet’s self-consciousness, as it appears in expressions of frustration with the poem’s procedure or form. Self-consciousness reduces interpretive latitude in the sense of diverting the reader from the performative, rhetorical aspect of the poem to a simplifying awareness of voice, a voice often found to be struggling with confusion or irritated at a convention it cannot freshen by force of ingenuity. Self-consciousness, as a gesture, has a way of shaking the poem out of a rut, and enlisting the reader against the worst instincts of the writer. Tony Hoagland in an essay remarks on self-consciousness in this regard; one of his examples:
Had the look of flowers that are looked at.
—From “Burnt Norton,” by T.S. Eliot
We are simultaneously delivered, in this case, from cliche and the strain of avoiding it.
3. The third type, emergent clarity, also depends on a simplifying awareness of voice. It occurs when a poem gradually works its way up to an intimacy that recasts the foregoing as a plausible act of communication or address, as opposed to an abstract act of literature.
4. The fourth type is the clarity of indigenous conceit. By “indigenous” here I mean plausibly native to the writer’s experience, and not fashioned out of an imaginative recombination of literature or pickings from various bodies of knowledge. …
5. The fifth type is a sort of generalized onomatopoeia, in which punctuation, sound, and syntax mime some action over time. The action may be stated or implied, but is in either case transparent. This type has ancestry in children’s literature and nonsense. Here is Beatrix Potter, describing the action of a rolling pin on a kitten pudding:
roly-poly, roly; roly, poly, roly
This is hardly language at all, and perhaps for that reason there is no latitude in its interpretation.
6. The last type of clarity arises when one of the poem’s formal devices, commonly meter, synchronizes with a naturally occurring feature of the language, potentially something as simple as a conversational inflection, an interjection, or a naturalistic trope like anacoluthon (“Maybe I should—I don’t know what to do”). If you accept the analogy of language to landscape and form to architecture, this type of clarity is a felicitous harmony between a feature of the topography and a feature of the design. Alternatively, if form is an abstract imposition on a pile of language, then this type occurs when the language seems to have fulfilled its formal requirements before the pattern arrives.
Clarity as Being Really Close to Your Left Eye
Tracy has, at least for me, made the idea of clarity fairly ambiguous by the end. It’s the inverse of what he reported about Empson’s essay on ambiguity back there in the cobwebs. From this all rises the one major idea of clarity: that it reduces ambiguity. In the clearest text, the clearest poem then, the level of ambiguity would be as near zero as possible. But how possible is the near zero? In the near zero economy, interpretation would be over fairly quickly, I would imagine. Readings would be agreed upon. that they are not, even in (especially in, even) poetry that is often cited as clear. Yes, but clear in what way? That is, indeed, the rub.
Even with that huge boulder of salt, I’m glad that this essay is out there. Now we need the follow-up essay, the one that talks about clarity in the way that it’s meant in contemporary poetry: The sentences will be grammatically correct, and that, more importantly, they will proceed as logically and experientially contingent, on a topic that is enacted in a pseudo-autobiographical manner where the speaker is at the center of the poem, unifying its parts in a socially acceptable situation (usually domestic) leading to a light epiphany. (And clarity, of course, is a separate concept from meaningfulness, as there’s no necessary connection between the two.) Or something like that.
Here’s a good example of contemporary clarity, where there’s the surface appearance of clarity (father / stranger / war / childhood terror / innocence vs experience / mortality / epiphany) leading to an elided, but still present, ambiguity (as opposed to poetry that embraces its movements around ambiguity, which, though, in the end both stances contain ambiguity & clarity, the overt contract with the reader is different [Ashbery, of course, is my go-to example for this other stance toward clarity]):
My First Memory
is the enormous face of a man peering
down into my carriage,
a fedora tilted back on his head,
and smoke billowing from a cigar in his mouth.
It was on the sidewalk
in front of our apartment building,
probably on a weekend
because my father was the one pushing the carriage.
I don’t recall the season.
It might have been spring,
but I was bundled up
the way babies were in a hand-knitted cap and sweater.
For all I know,
I could be mixing this up with a photograph
of my father standing by my carriage
in a topcoat, one hand resting on the bar,
but the memory is the same—
I was on my back as usual,
the man’s large head
was obscuring my customary view of clouds and sky,
and my father was nowhere in sight.
A war was raging in Europe and on the seas,
but all I knew was
the looming, smoking face of the man who was making me cry.
That was long ago, of course,
and now there is no longer anything to fear.
The man with the cigar must be long dead
and so is my father, and my mother as well,
and today I have time to lie
on my back on the autumn grass,
nothing below me but the spinning earth,
nothing between me and the open dome of sky.