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Wednesday 20 February 2013

On Clarity

What exactly do people mean when they demand, commend or recommend clarity in poems, and are they even referring to the same thing? Are we clear on what clarity is? I don't think I am, even though I'm conscious of exactly what Randall Jarrell identified in the following quote, which I've thieved from a post by Tim Love on the subject of poetry and communication:

The general public ... has set up a criterion of its own, one by which every form of contemporary art is condemned. This criterion is, in the case of music, melody; in the case of painting, representation; in the case of poetry, clarity. In each case one simple aspect is made the test of a complicated whole, becomes a sort of loyalty oath for the work of art. ... instead of having to perceive, to enter, and to interpret those new worlds which new works of art are, the public can notice at a glance whether or not these pay lip-service to its own 'principles' ...
Randall Jarrell

Interestingly, poets themselves do not present a united front against such reductionism. Some are scornful of attempts to resist clarity. Some treat it as a moral obligation. There seem to be several intermingling but subtly distinct rationales for this. The one I've encountered most is characterised by Adrian Mitchell's famous proclamation: "Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people." When poetry doesn't play fair, doesn't make itself readily understandable and relateable, it is responsible for its own failure as a communicative medium.

But here's where I tentatively come to the conclusion that accounts for my opening quizzicality: Mitchell's complaint, when analysed, seems to have been not that there is too little clarity in poetry but that there is too much of it. I'm not kidding! Here's how I've worked this out: I'm supposing for now that clarity means that the reader is able to almost instantaneously grasp the literal meaning and the implications of the poem he or she is reading or listening to. They understand the common usage of all the words involved, the relevance of any names mentioned and how to make sense of the sentence construction. More than that, however, they see how it all fits together. They find it a relatively simple task to intuit the intentions of the poet in writing the piece, and may even feel the faint thrill of a connection. The poem 'speaks' to them. It understands their condition as a human being, and addresses it. If the poem is particularly good, they might feel it achieves a state of being "what e'er was thought, but ne'er so well express'd".

A crude example sometimes used by those in the Mitchell frame of mind is the 'poetry nod' that a supposedly snooty poet gets when his obscure classical reference is picked up by an equally snooty audience, the enjoyment being one of exclusivity. "I get it. Others wouldn't. I'm in the club." But this is a fallacy; the little sighs and nods that occur throughout intimate poetry readings are far more likely to be the result of an experience of clarity, where a phrase or line seems to have achieved a sublime level of meaning, where the channel of communication is suddenly exquisitely open.

Anyone who has ever discussed films or art or stories with friends knows that this kind of experience is uncannily, almost frustratingly subjective. We can turn to the person who has just sat through exactly the same two and a half hours of cinema with us and find that they were unable to follow the plot that we found almost simplistic, loathed the characters we found sympathetic and successfully predicted the twist that caught us completely off guard. This could be a person we know very well, someone who shares our interests, and as such we often find the difference in personal experience baffling.

Clearly, though, the way we react to art is not wholly a matter of unfathomable randomness. Different styles and genres can be marketed to different demographics with a fairly secure expectation of broad understanding and enjoyment. Collectively, we're fairly good (but not brilliant) at working out what works for each other by reference to certain distinguishing traits, and unsurprisingly, many of us have a real knack for knowing how to effectively communicate with people who are ... well, more or less exactly like us.

The poem-reader connection I describe above, therefore, is more than likely in each case to be attributable to something beyond what the words themselves are doing. The 'clear' poem is one expertly pitched to its target demographic - probably someone who thinks in a similar way to the poet, who can draw from similar experiences, for whom certain words have the same significance. That's not to say, of course, that the poem can't have a meaning or significance, even beauty, to anyone outside this narrow beam; just that it's the most obvious explanation for the particular experience of clarity.

So if Mitchell deplored the writing of poetry that ignores the majority but is tuned specifically for a particular group, then, well, he was against the surest route to providing readers with that experience. The pursuit of clarity must surely involve that narrowing of focus. To write for 'most people' is to give the poem up entirely to that uncanny subjectivity that causes us to react in all manner of different ways. Even the most hopelessly ambitious marketing strategy sells the line 'something for everyone', not 'the same thing for everyone'.

I would assume that most poets do not recognise 'the few' and 'the many' as a binary choice. Rather, they'll attempt to keep in mind various possible readers while trying principally to please themselves. That is, the ultimate criterion they use is: "Would this poem speak to me, if I'd just happened upon it?" I don't see anything wrong with this method, but the natural consequence, in most cases, is going to be a spread of reactions and personal experiences in the minds of the range of readers the poem may eventually reach.

Here's where the difficulty really starts. In being fortunate enough to experience clarity while reading poetry, critics and commentators often discount the idea that their own particular qualities - the possibility of their shared interests and knowledge with the poet, for example - is a principle factor in that experience. When they subsequently demand, commend or recommend clarity, they're really importing the idea that all (or most) readers are just like them.

I shouldn't be surprised then (although in truth, I usually am) when their conclusions as to which poems 'play fair' and which are self-indulgently opaque differ wildly from mine. It's not at all unlikely that the most sincere attempt to pin down a difficult truth - one that seems just beyond the scope of language - will fail in what it aims to do for most readers. It's somewhat less likely that readers will be more receptive to such difficult truths than to something that they know they want to hear, something that has an affirmative aspect to them. How often are poets praised for 'challenging expectations' by readers whose hopes and expectations were happily fulfilled?

What should and does seem odd, then, is the importance attributed to sincere attempts towards clarity when the results of such attempts are so unpredictable. Odder still in a medium where many of the pleasures come from lack of clarity. Maybe I'm playing with words here, but I'm reflecting on the poems that first led me to take an interest in contemporary poetry. For the most part, I didn't understand their literal meaning very well at all, and it was that that led me to notice more intently the texture and music of the language used, and to find pleasure there. I'm still not sure, when I look around at poetry audiences, how many really notice or care about texture or music, and how many are jonesing for their next hit of clarity - the next line that will tell them exactly what they're hoping to hear. And if this is 90% of what poetry is to them, is poetry criticism fated to be muddied by expressions of the subjective?


  1. I'm with you all the way until you give your reasons for challenging Adrian Mitchell's statement, and I don't agree that "the results of [sincere attempts towards clarity] are so unpredictable".

    By chance, today I'm reading "writing for video games" by Steve Ince in which is says "Game players' tastes vary so much that games are almost impossible to aim at a broad demographic (the elusive 'mass market') but must be treated as a large series of niche markets. ... Often, the games that are classified as having a mass market appeal are simply the ones that are so well designed and made they are in the top few percent of their genre. They draw in additional players who would normally buy that genre's 'run-of-the-mill' games. ... It therefore seems natural to consider all games as being part of a series of niche genres".

    This seems a viable way to look at poetry too. Quite what strategy one subsequently adopts depends rather on what one estimates the size and isolation of those niches to be, and whether one's happy to live in deep in a niche. I think taking the odd chance is worthwhile - some might say you're boring, elitist, fashion-following, mainstream, on the autism-spectrum for your indifference to others, trying to impress your mates, etc - but you needn't take big risks all the time.

    You write "I'm still not sure, when I look around at poetry audiences, how many really notice or care about texture or music, and how many are jonesing for their next hit of clarity". I'm more sure (or pessimistic) than you. There are many reasons why people might say they like a poem, but if someone says they like a poem of yours, think twice before asking them why - it's likely to be embarrassing for both of you.
    Wayne Burrows in his Thumbscrew article suggests that "'Most people', quite simply, don’t know about poetry".
    Housman wrote "I am convinced that most readers, when they think they are admiring poetry, are deceived by inability to analyse their sensations, and that they are really admiring, not the poetry of the passage before them, but something else in it, which they like better than poetry".
    Harold Munro wrote "The public, as a whole, does not demand or appreciate the pure expression of beauty. Its cultured members expect to find in poetry, if anything, repose from material and nervous anxiety; an apt or chiselled phrase strokes the appetites and tickles the imagination. The more general public merely enjoys its platitudes and truisms jerked on to the understanding in line and rhyme; truth put into metre sounds overwhelmingly true".
    In the Rialto they said that "During a recent research project into reading habits conducted at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, a cross-section of the public nominated poetry to be the most annoying category of book currently published .... after a sustained period of reading poems, thirty six complained of headaches or migraine, twenty-seven suffered indigestion, and two became argumentative resulting in violent exchange .... eighty-two of the hundred people tested did fall asleep for prolonged periods at some point during their reading of poetry".

    I think one can safely predict that almost anything by Prynne (or better still, 'NHS' in Quid 6 - http://www.barquepress.com/media/31/pdf/quid6.pdf) will be considered unclear compared to (say) Carol-Anne Duffy's "Prayer" if you ask a sample of people. Tate Modern gets huge audiences for stuff that looks to me no clearer than 'NHS', but there we go.

  2. It is an interesting area, and I seem to recall Tim Love was one of those who commented on the Thumbscrew piece back in 1999 or thereabouts, though I can't remember where offhand. I should clarify that when I wrote "most people simply don't know about poetry" I meant it in the sense that poetry doesn't cross their paths and isn't part of the landscape of books they're likely to encounter, rather than in a sense implying that people don't understand it because there isn't sufficient intellect or knowledge.

    I note this simply because one of the biggest errors made in the whole debate about accessibility in poetry is to have focused almost exclusively on the failing appeal of the content and formats, the question who should be writing and publishing (the production side, if you like) and not enough on its physical availability to potential readers (the supply side).

    Experience suggests that the audiences outside the poetry world are bigger than the poetry world acknowledges - but the types of poems read may not be those the poetry world would prefer to provide: it's not quite true to say the readership is conservative in this way, as despite a preference for Carol Ann Duffy over Prynne, and certainly a continued presence for the Palgrave's Golden Treasury canon, you also find the likes of Wallace Stevens, Allen Ginsberg, Langston Hughes, Linton Johnson, DH Lawrence, WB Yeats, Christina Rossetti, Emily Dickinson, Anna Akhmatova, Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath, Joseph Brodsky, Seamus Heaney, etc, being widely read outside the core poetry readership (defined as the 'professional' readership, concerned mainly with contemporaries, perhaps). Despite almost none being very current, only a few of them seem especially straightforward or easy to read.

    I do agree that it's very much about niche markets: the flaw in poetry perhaps is its fragmentation into ever smaller and more specific ponds (not just page, performance and - for want of a better word, innovative - but each of those multiply sub-divided, then sub-divided again). Does that fragmentation, while increasing the diversity of the work available, also atomise the potential readerships? Perhaps, but many of those sub-divisions seem mainly of concern to those participating in them, a little like academic research fields, which (given the rise of Creative Writing in academia) may be precisely what they are.

    Analysing the appeal of poetry to non-professional readers, it's often about a kind of rhetorical music working in conjunction with cohesive imagery to generate a mood or atmosphere rather than clarity as such that's being sought. Ironically, perhaps it's precisely in seeking clarity and easy recognition that many contemporaries have missed the wider appeal of this kind of immersive strangeness (I'd argue that it's the quality of this in the shipping forecast, blended with effective rhetorical delivery, that makes Prayer among CA Duffy's best regarded). But it cuts both ways - if the mainstream tends to lack the strangeness, the innovative tends to lack the cohesion, then bringing both back round to the performative (which has similar flaws, but understands the power of rhetoric) might be the way forward.

    In a way, making things too 'relevant' and 'approachable' is getting it the wrong way round. Perhaps there's a good study to be done on why modern and contemporary art - which very often operates in ways that aggressively or otherwise challenge potential audiences, and have been widely despised - ended up massively popular (or, at least, necessary to discuss even when they're disliked - eg: the Emin/Hirst phenomena)while poetry - which has spent decades trying to befriend and reassure its potential audiences - well, *didn't*. On a hunch, I don't think clarity would actually enter into it very much.

  3. "Perhaps there's a good study to be done on why modern and contemporary art - which very often operates in ways that aggressively or otherwise challenge potential audiences, and have been widely despised - ended up massively popular (or, at least, necessary to discuss even when they're disliked - eg: the Emin/Hirst phenomena)while poetry - which has spent decades trying to befriend and reassure its potential audiences - well, *didn't*. On a hunch, I don't think clarity would actually enter into it very much."

    Seems pretty obvious to me. With poems, no matter how short, there is a quadruple remove. First you have to spend some time reading the things. Then you have to absorb or understand enough of what the poet is getting at (or assiduously avoiding, such as "meaning" or the dreaded referent or "lyric I"). Then you have to give enough of a shit to be moved by some incoherent epiphany / rambling melancholia pining for a diary or (worse) mentally fill in the gaps in the crossword, even though it may amount to nothing more than a few sour in-jokes and/or someone patting him/herself on the back for despising what language was invented for and/or a little parade of the requisite political opinions (there are very few Seidels out there).

    Set that against most visual art. Apart from video installations, the effect is immediate. You can clock a Hirst or Emin (and most brightly coloured kindergarten postmodern efforts) at a glance, in between texting your mates and looking for the toilets or the cafe, and no matter how depressingly empty-headed the things are, there are often other tidbits for the half-curious or tabloid-minded, such as the names of everyone Emin claimed she slept with or the fact that Ofili's paintings anticipate and checkmate your reactions by literally being made of what you might think of them. And on top of that, you're getting a dose of sensational contemporary culture, breathing in the zeitgeist. Far more fun.

  4. That should be triple (rather than quadruple) remove. I forgot I deleted some of my already over-loquacious comment.

  5. Great article and comments. Straying from your central theme of clarity to the general issue of popularity, I agree with Wayne’s ‘people don’t know about poetry’ comment. I think some of this is due to the media, which isn’t very interested in poetry, and when it does turn its gaze in that direction tends to look backwards - Yeats, Eliot, Plath, Larkin. Why does it look backwards? Because arts commentators have no confidence in themselves to declare what new writing is good, and don’t want to embarrass themselves by backing a loser, so would rather play it safe and draw to the public’s attention only those poets whom history has already garlanded? Because arts commentators are lazy? Unlike their political equivalents who are always looking for a new story, they are not looking for new voices, they are reliant on the industry to tell them whom to highlight, be it in poetry, novels, music, or art? Because stories require personalities and poetry has been short of personalities? Parkinson interviewed Auden, but which modern poet might Jonathan Ross, say, interview today? Who possesses an equivalent charisma to that of Auden? Because stories require scandals, preferably sex scandals and the breaching of social mores, and poetry has been for the last 50 years pretty mannered and polite? What effect would a second Byron have on column inches? And when there are scandals they are about jockeying for position in poetry-world, that is to say rather petty mundane scandals concerning a world the public has little knowledge of or interest in?

  6. Immediacy certainly has something to do with it. I couldn't finish the Cloud Atlas novel but I might manage the film. The difficulty of Mutt's urinal or Magritte's train coming out of a fireplace isn't because of a lack of initial clarity. Comprehending their difficulty can be deferred, indefinitely. Ditto to some extent with "Do not go gentle into that good night" - those who like it might struggle to explain what "Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay" means.

    I'd guess that music has the same problems as poetry/"poetry". You only need to look at what passers-by have in their ears to see that music's more popular than ever, but I couldn't name a living composer of "music".

    Can routes be offered (for those who are curious) from popular/visible poetry to the more challenging, unmarked material? Is Ruth Padel's approach in ‪'52 ways of looking at a poem'‬ the way forward?


What say you?