Obscurity = Clarity
This, from David Orr's Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry:
“What poets have faced for almost half a century, though, is a chasm between their art and the broader culture that’s nearly as profound as the divide between land and sea, or sea and air. This is what Randall Jarrell had in mind when he said that ‘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.’”
I’ve long felt that bit from Jarrell to be true. This is how I’ve seen it play out from my 20 years of teaching undergraduates who are not interested in poetry (in Texas, Ohio, Arkansas, and Missouri).
Poets, and those who read poetry, can fight among themselves as to the cause and cure of poetry’s marginal status, as they (we) will, but the obvious facts are telling. A healthy segment of the population loves obscure art. Think of music and movies, from The Beatles to Memento. Obscurity isn’t a problem if one is in the habit of listening to music or going to movies. But if one heard no music, and then listened to “I Am the Walrus” (to use an old example), one would get all “what does it mean” about it. But if one is in the habit of listening to music (from the 60s through the present), then “I Am the Walrus” just becomes another Beatles song. One that it’s OK to like or dislike. One where it’s OK to call it weird and still like it. It’s not threatening.
Now, with poetry, it’s difficult for me to find a poem to give to undergraduates (who haven’t been exposed to poetry) that doesn’t give them anxiety. And, by and large, it doesn’t matter what I give them to bring them into poetry.
There are always exceptions to this, of course. Children are a good example. Children make no differentiation between genres, for the most part, and because of that, they’re pretty ready to accept all forms of language play. There are adults, too, who have something of this natural appreciation. Burt talks about something like this in Close Calls with Nonsense. I’ll look it up and post it when and if I find it.
To people not used to reading poetry, a poem by Kay Ryan is every bit as obscure as one by Rae Armantrout. A poem by Michael Palmer is every bit as obscure as one by Billy Collins. OK, maybe that second example is a stretch, but I’m hard-pressed to find much of a difference in student reactions to either. Truth is, whether it’s a poem from Collins or Palmer or Armantrout or Ryan, students don’t know what to do with it. They don’t see what it’s for. They don’t know what it means.
It’s a genre problem, not a problem of the poetry itself. So doing something with the poems (writing differently) isn’t going to fix it. We already write differently, all across the gamut, and it’s not helping. It might be that obscurity makes it harder for those not used to poetry to find a way in, but even the most non-obscure poets (Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, Sharon Olds, etc) have miniscule readerships when one looks at other forms of art. The smallest indie band in America (East River Pipe, for example) sells more albums that the most popular poet in America. The idea of “accessible” poetry is only one that people who read poetry can have.
The good news is it doesn’t seem to matter much where I start when introducing people to poetry, and that it is possible to introduce people to poetry, and, also, once introduced, they can find things of interest there. After that, they can find the types of poetry that they like and the types that they don’t. Poetry reading and appreciation is not dead, it’s just dormant. It can grow.
Anyway, the bit from Orr will be going up on the Poetry Daily news page at some point today: