Sunday 19 June 2016


I'm gradually changing my mind about second readings, especially regarding when they're deserved. I think

  • there's too much poetry that shouldn't require a second reading, but does.
  • there are too many pieces that should do more to reward a thorough first reading.

Poems that are too hard

I used to think that "tight" writing was admirable, the tighter the better even at the expense of clarity. Now I'm less sure. Which is best? - a short piece that needs to be read 5 times, or a piece 3 times longer that needs only one reading? The latter's more concise if (as nowadays) time rather than space is the determining factor. A tight piece verging on being cryptic requires reader intervention, but it might not be poetic intervention per se. It might just be a matter of having to de-code - a proof of a commitment after which the reader will be tempted to justify the time they've spent.

If instead the reader gives up after the first few lines, why should the writer worry? Nowadays there seems less of an attempt by writers to discourage accusations of charlatanism or unnecessary obscurity. Nietzsche wrote that poets "all muddy their waters to make them appear deep", which again makes me suspect cryptic poems - even if they're not deceptive they might still be inconsiderate. Whereas tight poems require on-the-fly exegesis skills from the reader, long poems require on-the-fly editing skills, which are more common.

Sometimes a second reading is required because the writing's not clear. Sometime this is deliberate, though that isn't always a good excuse. In

He liked John's body but not his brashness. "Are you doing anything tonight?" "No" "Well let's go out then."

which of the 2 men mentioned in the first sentence popped the question? Should more words be added to make it clearer, or should we assume that the supposedly brasher man made the invitation? Does it deserve a second read? That example's made up, but what about the following from "The Hunter's Wife" by Anthony Doerr? It's not ambiguous but is the lack of punctuation a help?

You know her? the hunter asked.
Oh no, Marpes said, and shook his head. No I don't. He spread his legs and swiveled his hips as if stretching before a foot race. But I've read her

Poems that are too easy

A poem/Flash begins with "he and "she" in conversation. It seems like a father/toddler relationship. Later however, it becomes clear that a grown man is conversing with his senile mother. That twist is what makes the piece work. People usually enjoy the deception. Writers are advised to "show not tell". This piece goes a step further, showing enough to make the readers err so that they can discover their unwarranted assumption.

"punchline pieces" don't survive repeated readings (except for a second reading to admire technique), but the trouble is that some pieces don't survive to the end of a first reading. An experienced reader will be expecting a twist and will try to anticipate it. When I read this piece the banality of the start immediately raised suspicion. I thought the father might be about to deliver bad news to the child about the mother, or that the daughter was an AI system. When the twist came, my reaction was "well, I knew it would be something like that".

I suppose you can't please everyone.

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