Tuesday, April 19, 2011

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:



At 4/19/2011 10:48 AM, Anonymous djm said...

this the burt essay?


At 4/19/2011 11:07 AM, Blogger David-Glen Smith said...

You brought up the same issue I repeat every term. Every new school year I go through the same lecture how poetry has its origins in music and that students only need to remember to breathe and read slowly and enjoy the phrasing. A good example I use is "How to Eat a Poem" by Eve Merriam. It is a little elementary for college-level, but the message is supplied... that is, I hope the message is supplied.

The issue lies in the fact music lyrics tell the student what to think and how to approach the "inner poem" of the song. (Do people still watch music-videos? At one time that was a major argument as well.)

Poetry, avant garde and non-experimental are all open to an interpretation and possibility which leaves the student wanting further clarification.

At 4/20/2011 8:50 AM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

Absolutely. Right on! Great post. But I think the problem is worse than you make it out to be. My community college students fare little better with prose, even the limpidest prose. They lack the vocabulary, the attention span, and the curiosity. I don't think it's a "genre problem"; I think it's an aliteracy problem and an intellectual laziness problem. The problem is a progressive and general stultification of the American populace. And we can't avert the slow slide into imbecility by infusing our poetry with Georgianism or writing versified Mary Oliver. Who wants to write that way, anyway? I'm going to write the way I want to, dammit. I don't care if nobody reads it.

At 4/20/2011 12:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is obscurity the same thing as perceived difficulty?
People have an easy time with I am the Walrus and Jaberwocky, but after all these years Schoenberg is still a tough sell.

At 4/21/2011 5:38 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

Anon, do you sense Lewis Carroll and Schoenberg are hitting the same affective register? Schoenberg's Pierrot is a little goofy, I guess.

Discussions of obscurity and difficulty often aren't about what they seem.

John, what are you reading lately?

At 4/21/2011 6:09 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I’ve been away (it’s that time of year around here) for a bit and now I’m almost back.

DJM: That’s it! I keep meaning to post a few bits of it. Burt’s really good as a door opener. I part ways when it comes to the actual way he reads poems (he’s very attached to a version of creating a narrative from the poem where I’m more interested in the ways a poem can go in several directions, the possible rather than the probable).

D-GS: There’s a lot going on in songs, you’re right. But I’m still attached to the idea that it’s largely a context issue, or genre issue, at the heart.

DG: I’m not there yet. I still think it’s not a total difficulty of “aliteracy problem and an intellectual laziness.” But that might just be because I want so much not to read a version of my past onto the present and future (the “we were better” argument). Such arguments make me uncomfortable, but that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily wrong.

Anon: I think that “difficulty” gets tossed around too easily (ha). It’s a marker for many different things that often people don’t want to take the time to get right. So yes, I think that is one of the ways that “difficulty” is used. Reginald Shepherd wrote a nice essay on this once, I think it was called “On Difficulty.”

Jordan: I agree. Conversations about obscurity and difficulty are conducted in code, as are conversations of accessibility and clarity, and often in blurbs on the backs of books.

Right now I’m listening to Bill Callahan’s new album, Apocalypse, as I type this. The two books that are on my desk, that I’ve been reading are Jeremy Schmall & The Cult of Comfort,, and Sarah Goldstein’s Fables. I just finished Dana Levin’s Sky Burial last night.

How about you? And recommendations?

At 4/21/2011 7:14 AM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

I hear you, John. I guess I was venting some spleen, and I came off sounding George Carlinish or something. If "we were better," we weren't much--or I wasn't, at any rate. I can't recall my undergraduate obtuseness without acute embarassment.

We need to be charitable and optimistic when we talk about our students. Maybe that's not difficult for you.

At 4/21/2011 7:20 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


They're the WTF generation!:


At 4/21/2011 7:28 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

And from that article, I think this must have something to do with something:

"According to a yearly national survey of more than 200,000 first-year students conducted by researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles, college freshmen are increasingly 'overwhelmed,' rating their emotional health at the lowest levels in the 25 years the question has been asked."

But that's just college students. The problem of the lack of a poetry readership goes all the way up!

At 4/21/2011 11:51 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

John, proxies and slush. Can't recommend either, though I've found nice things in both.

I'll go ahead and scoop myself to say if you haven't bought Grace Zabriskie's book yet you might get on that.


Post a Comment

<< Home