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.