Thursday, 3 March 2011

Obscurity again

Anyone who's read my attempts at reviewing lately will note that I'm having more trouble than usual with poetry. I'm happy to enjoy poems that I don't "understand" but when I neither enjoy or understand a poem I start asking pointed questions. Sometimes the obscurity of one poem in a book makes me distrust others. I have a fair knowledge of literary/art movements. I need to see individual poems analysed. Books that have helped me in the past include

These tackle (sometimes successfully) poems by the likes of Prynne, Jorie Graham, etc. In Not so difficult poems and Obscurity I tried to explain how I deal with some common obstacles. Now it's time for me to look for more help.

  • Michael Snediker's review of "Infidel Poetics: Riddles, Nightlife, Substance" by Daniel Tiffany makes it sound like a valuable contribution to the obscurity debate - "The ambitiousness of Tiffany’s argument is exceeded only by the dazzling success of it.". However, the review's penultimate sentence might make one reconsider - "The delight in discovering, across the time of reading, that perceived tenuity patiently could await its being reassessed as a new and significant lucidity - that an infrastructure already had been in place without one’s registration of it - describes the good fortune of a new book so self-abiding in its convictions that we learn to trust it, such that an earlier sense of unfamiliarity alchemizes into the gratitude of learning where we least expected it." What I understand of this could surely have been said more simply.
  • I'm looking forward to reading Stephen Burt's "Close Calls with Nonsense" - ("If you are a new reader of poetry, Stephen Burt will help you figure out techniques for approaching difficult writers" "Burt pursues his argument in a manner which is always as rational as it is accessible")
  • "The Art of Recklessness: Poetry as Assertive Force and Contradiction" by Dean Young has its fans.

SF writer Arthur C. Clarke's Three Laws are unexpectedly apt -

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right; when he states that something is impossible, he is probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

I sometimes think that it's impossible for a certain text to be usefully described as poetry. I think it's necessary to go slightly beyond poetry to determine its limits. Most of all, I think that the "magic" of poetry is largely explainable in terms of technique and analysis. I think it's possible to speak simply about at least some types of obscurity. So I'll keep searching. Maybe Arduity: clarifying difficult poetry is useful


  1. I think it is both necessary and important that writers stretch themselves. I regularly read poetry that I go, "Eh?" at because I want to understand in fact I've just written a lengthy article on Flarf trying to take it seriously which there is a growing case for despite its beginnings. I've still not got to grips with Language Poetry however. Still working my way to to tacking that one.

  2. The Avant-garde and Language poetry is as far as I got - not far. I share many of their dislikes, but agree with few of their solutions. I like some ex-langpo and post-langpo stuff. Heather McHugh for example can be disruptively tricksy with wordplay, but doesn't buy into the franchise.

  3. An excellent article. I've kept a note of it for when I finally get round to having a go myself.

    With the Flarf article (and also with the one I posted recently on visual poetry) I had a crack at writing a poem in that style and I'll probably do the same here. When I get round to it.