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' ...
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?