clear as glass, clear as mud

"Frideswide" by Edward Burnes-Jones public domain from wikimedia commons

Lately I’ve been arguing with myself (and with others, although they have no idea as I’ve been arguing with them inside my head) about how clear to be in a poem. How much to give the reader flat out versus how much to hint toward, evoke, suggest, leave ajar. The whole story, beginning to neatly-tied end; or the emotional center of a tale with no sure beginning or end? Should I give them the birdhouse itself, or the shadow of the birdhouse; the snowstorm or the remaining scraps of its memory?

It started with a quote from Lucinda Williams on Writer’s Almanac. She said, “Above all, the listener should be able to understand the poem or the song, not be forced to unravel a complicated, self-indulgent puzzle. Offer your art up to the whole world, not just an elite few.” 

Next was a blog post from Fleda Brown on clarity. She writes: “Just say the truth as you see it.  If a poem begins to come out of that, it’s because you’ve honed your sensibility on your ancestors’ poems, and/or on wonderful contemporary poems, and you’ve absorbed the feeling of how music and meaning can be made. If a poem doesn’t come out of that, then write prose. Write a story, or write your life, or go roller skating. Be brave. Do something genuine. Or go ahead and fail at the poem. We all do.  But fail by laying it all out there, not by hiding everything that really matters to you and asking me to guess what it might be, in the name of poetry.” Earlier in the essay, she reassures us that “there’s a lot of space within the word ‘clarity.'” Still, that “Just say the truth as you see it” has me wondering — what if I see the truth as pock-marked and jagged, or as the shadow of a breeze-blown, translucent curtain through a door cracked open, barely?

On the one hand, I don’t enjoy poems or other forms of art that are, to me, clear as mud, overly complicated to no discernible end, or obviously self-indulgent. I once took a class with a poet who saw herself as a post-modernist collagist using words as her medium (full disclosure: I’m not really sure what post-modernist means). She filled the page with wild tumbles of images. No narrative. No anchors to tie the images to. No helpful titles or epigraphs. None of it. Although I’m not saying it was self-indulgent, I never understood the first thing about her poetry, but I knew she was a devoted reader and writer with an artistic philosophy, so I tried to read her work and give the best response I could: what it evoked, what it felt like, what it made me think of. Still, I didn’t enjoy it and probably would not want to read a book-length collection of poems like hers.

And then there’s the other extreme: the poem laid bare. I think of highly narrative poems, almost “talky,” like Billy Collins’ The Lanyard. He tells us all. He makes a lanyard for his mother, wants it to make things even between them — the debt of all that she has given him paid–, knows it can’t. I’m not saying it’s not a good poem, not well-crafted. He’s a wonderful poet, and funny, and masterful. But poems like “The Lanyard” don’t pull me in in the same way as poems with a bit of mystery do. It’s clear as glass, clean glass with the sun shining through.

What I think I like best in a poem, and other forms of art, is a work that gives me a few footholds, but also gives room to breathe, to weave and unweave, to turn around, trying to remember where I’ve been — a work that allows mystery in, that doesn’t always tie things up neatly. I don’t mind puzzling a bit if the words and images are beautiful or captivating or mysterious enough. I like to be able to read a poem in one season of my life and see x, y, and z. And then to read it again in another season of my life and see only K. Often, I don’t want to be told every last thing. I like it when things can be equivocal, open to interpretation, evoked but not said straight out. This balance of places to stand and pockets of mystery feels like real life to me, feels like the truth as I see it. I think of it as stained glass: the light comes through, here bright, there dim; the leading (that’s lead, as in the metal, -ing) blocks some light completely, but joins the panels together. I think I know what’s going on in this corner, but that dark pocket in the lower right quadrant I’m not sure of — it makes me wonder.

I think of the poem Ariel by Sylvia Plath. I bet I’ve read that poem 100 times, and still, I’m not sure I really “get” it. But it’s images! “And now I / Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas.” It’s beautiful sounds! “Pour of tor and distances.” I will read it 100 times more because of its dark excitement, the strange communion it hints at, its mystery.

Writers and readers, artists and lovers of art, where do you fall on this issue of clarity in art? What do you prefer when you are creating, when you are taking in? I would love to know.

P.S. Kathleen Kirk blogged about this last week, too. Read her thoughts here.

16 thoughts on “clear as glass, clear as mud

  1. I’m so glad you pursued this in your blog, as I’ve been thinking about it ever since, too! There’s something in between the “too clear” and the “too muddy,” isn’t there, that several of us appreciate when we read and want to do when we write! It’s true that I am seldom gripped by poetry, visual art, or fiction that resides primarily in a movement or depends on a scholarly justification for itself, or is too verbally showy. Likewise, there’s a too clear poem that might as well be prose. But somewhere in between is the subtle, complicated poem I love and stay with even though something keeps escaping me and the poem of utter clarity that reveals itself as doing something cloudier as well, or calling itself into question. The simplicity of language still evokes a complexity of thought or a tension of feeling… Poets get to be the lyricists and the musical accompaniment as well. Their words can be clear, but their musical choices might shake or bounce things up a bit. There might be a harmony alongside with the melody, or a dissonance.

    • Yes, Kathleen! (and, whew, glad I’m not the only one who’s still thinking about it :)). Yes to the place in between too clear and too muddy. And thanks for bringing up the “poem of utter clarity that reveals itself as doing something cloudier as well.” Some of my favorite poems are just so. I love the idea of the harmony and/or dissonance.

  2. thanks for tomorrow’s lesson plan.
    boom.

    I tend to hang in the middle as well — take me somewhere with imagery and mystery, but don’t leave me looking over an edge without the hope of a net.

  3. Molly, I think you’ve been silently arguing with me. : )

    I saw Fleda’s post the other day and cheered. I especially appreciated this section: ” . . so many poets . . . mistake obfuscation for mystery. They’re afraid if they just tell it as they see it, they’ll expose their bare, uninteresting, un-poetic selves. They’re afraid. So they leave crucial parts out. To make mystery, so they think. But the result is that there’s no way to care.”

    This is often true of young poets, but also seen in more “seasoned” writers, too. While I appreciate a bit of mystery, I am put off with work that works hard to keep me at a distance. And, this distancing or “mystery” may be the very reason I too often hear, “I don’t like poetry. I just don’t get it.”

    Thanks for broaching this hot topic.

    • Drew, thanks for weighing in. I don’t like to feel entirely kept out, either. The trick is in the balance of it, I guess. I have a theory that if more curricula included many more living, working poets (alongside the classics) and taught poetry as an experience and not just an exercise in story/meaning, we’d have more lovers of poetry out there. But I’m probably biased.

  4. Great post, Molly. I tend to agree with you, and I think it’s a highly complicated topic. An artist and each piece falls somewhere on a sliding scale when it comes to being fully transparent or fully opaque. It’s our job as the artist to know how to bring out what the piece wants to be, to express it skillfully, which means discerning what’s too much and what’s too little. That’s painstaking, and comes more naturally to some than others, but I think we can get better at that with practice.

    Art, in general, when one tries to contrive depth by withholding, just feels false, and those are the types of opaque poems that I don’t care for. It’s not that they’re opaque so much as that they’re contrived. (And the artists, often whose egos are far too involved, that I also tend not to care for.) I think withholing can be done well, naturally, can create intrigue and contribute to the quality of any piece, but the way it is done, and how and why and to what extent matters. So does intention. Withholding must come from an authentic place otherwise it’s just feels false, and only woos readers who aren’t able to see through that falseness.

    While I’m at it, I also wanted to say I loved your post last week about the writing life and parenthood. That’s been on my mind a lot lately, how to work/mother/create and how to organize the creative time that there is. Now that I have a little time to sit at a desk each week I’m almost overwhelmed with where to begin, and wonder how on earth other parents make it happen (without getting up at 4 a.m., which I am not ever going to do). I almost forgot that children, eventually, go to school. That’s right! Eventually there will be school! I’ve started to think mine, delightful as she is, will be 2 forever.

    • bmaryk8, thanks for joining the conversation. Your thoughts about contrived depth (“Art, in general, when one tries to contrive depth by withholding, just feels false”) really resonate with me. I agree that the mystery, the withholding must come from an authentic place — it should be, in my opinion, required for the poem to work as the poem wants to work. Not to throw the reader off the poem’s scent.

      And I’m glad you enjoyed the post on parenthood and writing. Yes, 2, even a delightful 2, can sometimes feel like forever :), but, yes, they all go to school one day. In the mean time, be gentle with yourself as you try to find that precious time to create.

  5. Loved seeing the whole discussion here. I agree that intentional obfuscation and unnecessary withholding tend to ring false in poetry, and push readers away. I hope all of us who care find ways to find the balance!

    • Yes, this issue has brought out many interesting points and perspectives. I appreciate everyone’s input to the conversation!

  6. Students responses to your post: (enjoy!)
    1. I liked how you used examples from other authors. The quotes you picked were perefect to prove your point. I also like your narrative in parenthesis, it made me smile. I like poetry somewhere in the middle. When I write it I often strugglew witht the questions you posed in the end of you rfirst paraggraph. But it always works out one way or the other, usually closer to crystal clear.
    2. I LOVE your voice. The way you spoke made me feel that we were on the same level. In some ways it seemed like we were having a conversation. I agree with your thought that I don’t want my poetry (or literature for that matter) to be clear as mud or clear as glass. I like to be able to see the scene and where it occurs but I don’t want all the detaild filled in for me. ~Kjh-Lajhni

    3. I completely agree with you. Poetry, to me, shouldn’t be so complex that you might never find the true meaning, but at the same time it shouldn’t be so easy to read that you don’t think about the meaning. The kind of poetry I like to read involves imagry and symbolism that creates a deeper meaning..
    4. i love the way you write, I feel like the class was all sitting in front of you listening to your opinion. It’s like you were talking directly to us.
    5. Whoops, I’m writing a lot, sorry. I love how you address the world, you talk openly to everyone, and yet in parentheses you tell us ‘secrets’. I have not read any of your work/writing yet, although the way WK talks about your work it makes me want to. I guess you could say I’m a birdhouse type of girl. Thank-you. ~Leah
    6. I really appreciate your inclusion of both arguments, (Without making a claim as to which is correct). I love your conversational tone, because it really opens the post up to be an ongoing conversation. I actually prefer the clear as glass styled poetry. I am a very analytical person. Somehow the perfectly clear poetry allows me to dig even deeper into the text. -Anna Grace
    7. I like how you internally go back and forth with yourself about what type of poetry is better. Personally, I go with the more hidden meaning ones vs. the “this is what it is, here it is” kind. I also prefer to hear why people like what they like rather than just sit there and disagree with them the whole time. – Paige
    8. I really liked this entry. It was beautifully written. I loved how you gave examples of poems that you thought were either clear as glass or too muddy. I’m in the middle when it comes to poetry. I like it to be clear yet i want to find that deeper meaning in a certain poem. I like the mystory peice of it.~ Cheliese Lipka
    9. Molly, I love your voice in this blog. I feel like I cdould relate to what you were saying. It really makes me wish I could enjoy poetry more. I think poetry can give beautiful imagery. When I read poems I like them to be “clear as glass” but even if a poem isn’t clear I like to watch the poem in my head as I read it. – Erin Murphy 🙂
    10. Molly, i really enjoyed ehat you had to say. I like you voice in what you wrote in your blog. I like how you have side converstions in parenthesis. I love poetry because its just so beautiful and I like the kin that has a little bit of mystery to it but is not so hard to understand.

    • Wow – thanks for all these thoughtful responses. Jane, thank your students for me — it’s exciting to see them engaging in this issue as reader and as writer. One thing I’ve learned is that whether you are clear as glass or clear as much or somewhere in between, it’s important as poet to know WHY you are doing what you’re doing in a particular poem. To Ms. Wyckoff-Kingshott’s class, I say: Write on!

  7. Group 2: continued responses from students:
    11. With poetry I like the poems to be clear as glass, a little obvious; I don’t like to have to quess what the poet meant. I enjoyed the poem The Lanyard, but I felt like it was more of a story which is probably why I liked it. The poem Ariel lost me, so I didn’t get much out of it. I enjoyed reading your blog and lookforward to reading more of them in class! – Erika
    12. I like how you said that you never know how much to hint toward because when I’m reading a poem I like a little mystery and yet I don’t want to have to dig and dig to find the meaning. My favorite part of your post was when you said if you should give the whole birdhouse, or just a shadow. There is a ton of stuff you have to think about when your writing a poem, that’s for sure!! -Anna
    13. I enjoyed reading the entry and to read what your personal opinion views and opinions are on different poems, I also liked the clear as glass and thick as mud section. Most people either side to the left or the right on the situation. You saying that you are more of an in between is different what is normally said. If they partially understand a poem, then they will say they like it. If they don’t understand it, they will say they don’t like it. So it was a nice entry and I enjoyed it.

  8. batch 3:
    1. Molly,
    I really liked how as a reader I could find your personal writing voice. Writing in parenthesis was an awesome way to show your voice, and at the same time really engaging. The last sentence is the first paragraph really stood out to me. As writers we do have to figure out if we’re going to give all the details or just a few and let the readers figure out the rest. For myself, I like to read things mostly clear as glass, however; a little dirt on it makes it more interesting.
    ~Arika Schmitt
    2. I love how peaceful your writing is; it’s something calm and thoughtful and not at all condescending or critical. Your voice is clear in this writing, as in the side comments in the parentheses, and the appositives at the end of sentences. Myself, I also lie somewhere in the middle when it comes to poetry. I like to be able to make my own interpretation–so I’m never wrong–but I hate to be completely baffled.
    –Julie
    3. I love how you didn’t critize anyone else’s work, but you more explained why you liked it or disliked it. I also liked your own person voice. I love poems that are between clear as glass and clear as mud because the poems give you an idea about what the poems are about but also give you a little mystery so you can make the poem somewhat your own and figure out what the poem means yourself. For example, “The Old Age of Nostalgia” by Mark Strand says “Those hours given over to basking in the glow of an imagined future” says to me that it is about a sun, but wrote in a more creative way. Have a beautiful day!
    Sincerly, Amber.

    • Ms. W-K’s class, thanks again for all your thoughtful and thought-provoking responses. And, btw, I had to look up “appositive” 🙂 (it’s been a long time since high school for me).

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