Clarification. Or not.

Posted on August 3, 2020


A poet I’m working with who writes narrative poems that are touched with stream of consciousness, and whose work I find riveting, nevertheless sends me this email:

Most places I send this work find it incomprehensible. . . .  My models for the blank verse are James Merrill’s long poems, Robert Frost, and Nabokov’s novel, Pale Fire.  I know these poems don’t come up to their standards, so I’d like to improve their quality.  I’d also like the narrative clearer so people don’t find it so confusing. 

I get this a lot from writers chasing the gods of “clarity.” I find they’re work remarkable, and have no problem “following” its engaging turns. Maybe this sentiment is workshop residue; maybe they’re sending the work to the wrong places. Probably both. It’s the Apollo on one shoulder, Dionysus on the other thing.

Here’s my answer, and what I would say to just about any poet sending out work these days, i.e., in the midst of contemporary chaos and a good 60 years after Frost.

Well, first of all, they’re wrong, by which I mean, readers who find this work incomprehensible are looking for something you’re not doing. Many readers find Pale Fire incomprehensible. Many find Hamlet incomprehensible, what with all that dithering, baiting and Freudian undertow. Nearly everyone finds Gertrude Stein to be a certain kind of incomprehensible. Like Nabokov, or Shakespeare, or Stein, or Emily Dickinson for that matter, you embrace a word within a dreamscape. Which is where we live, and like our brain, which right-side-ups everything our eyes see, our brains also try to make a certain kind of sense of chaos.

Our job as writers is to capture that chaos and come to some kind of terms with it. As in dreams, not everything adds up, because things don’t add up in putative “real life.” Order is provisional. As you know. As you suggest in your poems. I like that you give permission to that part of the unconscious which, like the dreamer, let’s go of the superego, which is what makes us, in dreaming, psychotic. Something to aim for, that artistic psychosis, without which no Goya or Picasso or Joan Mitchel (“No Birds”)

or Helen Frankenthaler (Mountains & Sea, 1952

So, my theory of narrative is that we humans need story so badly that we’ll manufacture one from the slimmest evidence, whether from the cave walls at Lascaux and Altamira, the papyrus on which a shred of of Sappho resides, or, say, that fragment of a letter your mother wrote your father during the war in which she seems to be channeling Joyce.

The job of the artist (poet) is to provide just enough to invite the reader in, show the reader around the place, say some sort of mutually satisfying goodby. So, I can give you great exercises for clarifying your narrative, if that’s what you’re really after, as long as you understand that “clarity” is a construct. We have time to do that together with a few of your poems, and then you can take it from there. Or you can rejoice in what you’re creating. Or both.

Posted in: Poetry