by Geoff Page

Theo_van_Doesburg_kleine_Dada_soirée

(Developed from a short talk given in Bondi on November 7, 2014 at the salon of Luke Fischer and Dalia Nassar)

Firstly, we need to remember a successful poem is both an act of communication and a work of art. There is a tension between the point I first heard from John Tranter (“If I wanted to tell you something I’d have sent you a telegram”) and the fact that almost all poems (even the most obscure) are an attempt, in one way or another, to address a putative reader or listener.

There exists in current Australian poetry, and in world poetry across time and geography, a spectrum of obscurity which may be divided loosely into eight categories:

  1. Desirable or Essential Obscurity. This kind of obscurity is essential to the poetic process. Given poetry’s necessary compression, not everything can or should be spelt out. A poem which attempts to “cover all bases” will, unarguably, be banal.
  1. Inevitable Obscurity. This is where the temptation to “lift a footnote into the text” is resisted because the poet knows that doing so would probably spoil the poem by forfeiting its important qualities of compression — and, often, musicality. Poets have to “trust the reader”. More on this later — though we should note in passing that Ezra Pound broke this rule effectively in his Cathay poems from time to time.
  1. Obscurity of cultural reference. Nearly all poetry relies on knowledge being taken as given. Poets have to make assumptions about their readers‘ education — which, of course, changes over time. In the nineteenth century and earlier a working familiarity with Greek myths could be taken for granted. Now the Greek gods and heroes have been replaced by elements of popular culture — songs, movies, celebrities, etc. This is not automatically a decline; just a change of circumstances.

Google, of course, has cancelled many excuses in this regard — though we should note that an obscure poem which lacks any initial musical attraction is unlikely to be investigated further. We might observe too, in this context, that T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” has become much less obscure over time (and as more work is done on it by successive readers — and scholars). We are no longer troubled by a line or two from a foreign language we don’t know. With Google, the solution is immediately to hand.

  1. Syntactical obscurity. This occurs when the poem’s vocabulary and references are relatively simple but the syntax, deliberately, makes for obscurity. Take these two lines from Wallace Stevens’ “Anecdote of the Jar”: “The jar was round upon the ground / And tall and of a port in air”.

Perhaps, for some readers, the meaning of that last phrase is resoundingly obvious. I have thought about it for forty years without finding a convincing answer. This does not, however, in any way diminish my delight in the poem.

  1. Obscurity for tonal effect. The French Symbolistes, along with the Post-Impressionist painters, were masters of this. Stéphane Mallarmé argued that “Poetry should aspire to the condition of music” — which, in instrumental form, is free of denotative words. It’s a tradition carried on in the later poetry of Wallace Stevens and by the New York poet, John Ashbery. To readers who find it difficult to suppress the denotative in favour of the connotative this can be a problem, even as we admit that poetry’s most important effects flow from the latter rather than the former. In this kind of poetry we often find we are listening to the sound of the syntax or the sigh of the syllables rather than to any point being made about the external world as we know it. It’s pleasurable — but less so over long distances.
  2. Accidental obscurity. This happens when poets don’t realise that a word or phrase may be taken in a totally counterproductive or “wrong” way. Politicians (who, in a sense, are amateur poets) often make this mistake with phrases such as “shirt-fronting” or the “right to be a bigot”. The phrase “goes viral” and achieves the opposite of its intention.

It’s also possible to use an image which, almost accidentally, may be totally meaningless to the “average reader”. Poets can often benefit from having a firmly-grounded non-poet read their work before sending it out to a publisher. On the other hand we have to agree with T.S. Eliot when he said “There are many ways to interpret my poems; mine are not necessarily the best”. One should never be dogmatic about interpretation.

  1. Reckless obscurity. This happens when the poet may detect an obscurity in his or her poem but can’t be bothered tidying it up — or refuses to so. It’s a particular problem with followers of Allen Ginsberg’s maxim, “First thought/best thought”.

This not to deny, however, the reality of Wallace Stevens’ distinction between the “poem of the idea” and the “poem of the words”. We’re reminded of Auden’s point that “a poem is never finished; it is only abandoned”. The problem with some poets is that they “abandon” the poem too soon, leaving obscurities that do no one any good.

  1. Wilful obscurity. This is where the poet deliberately intends to “shock” the reader by relinquishing traditional syntax and/or playing self-indulgently with the polysemic nature of language along with typography, spelling, punctuation. This is not to attack E.E. Cummings (who is rarely obscure once you get past the typographical hijinks) but it does apply to a significant group of contemporary (mainly young) Australian poets.

It’s possible these poets are attempting to suggest complex and elusive meanings that “lurk between the words” and are thus forced to abandon traditional syntax to achieve this. Without foregoing syntax, the Italian “Hermetic” poets had this intention — and were often successful. The best work of Salvatore Quasimodo is an example.

[A paragraph at this point of this piece has been withdrawn, with the agreement of the author, owing to the unexpected intensity of the controversy it has generated.’ – Southerly]

Again one has to concede that there is a vibrant, alternative avant garde tradition which has long flowed beside the poetic mainstream. One thinks of the remarkable Canadian experimental poet, Christian Bök. His performances are unforgettably dramatic. He knows his antecedents in detail, going right back to the dadaist, Kurt Schwitters, and his “Ur Sonata”. Young Australian poets hoping to occupy the space here that Bök fills in Canada would seem to have a lot more work ahead of them.

Is it just the jaundice of the ageing to think the avant gardists’ motivations may simply be to render themselves impervious to traditional criticism? Should one resist the fable of the little boy and the naked emperor? What a pity that our naïve young onlooker didn’t yet have the experience to know that the splendid new garments not being worn by the emperor were a hundred years old already.

Photo credit: “Theo van Doesburg kleine Dada soirée” by attributed to Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931) www.geheugenvannederland.nl. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons 

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