Grounded vs. Obscure Poetry

Hi Everyone,

I have a question which I would hope lends itself to debate among us. Just how much should any of us use such personal or obscure references and language in our writing so that almost every line of a poem has to be explained by the writer to a reader, or the poem is nearly incomprehensible?

Such a thought struck me after reading a poem in Harper’s May 2018 issue, “The New Sobriety,” by Rodney Koeneke. I gather from the title and the first line’s mention of his “liver” that the poem is about quitting drinking. Other than that, I would not be able to make heads or tails out of it. Even then I don’t know if being sober is good or bad for body or mind, or maybe the poem also refers to the author’s love life.

But there it is–in a national magazine. Which leads to my next question: What, in writing, has lasting value? I hope for a “something” that ends up being known as literature, something that has immediate and lasting value.

Yes, I know taste changes, style changes, language changes over time. That the medium known as poetry invents and reinvents itself is a given. But is there a real danger in making poems too clever, too much of a puzzle, that we limit the potential audience?

So, a question to ask ourselves when writing is, who is our audience? To what extent is it OK to write poems meant only for ourselves, or for a small circle of friends who belong to a narrow niche that is educational, occupational, gender, age-based, etc?

What most of us write best is what we know. So how far out beyond ourselves do we want to project and thereby inform a larger world of what strikes us as important, as valuable, as sharable? The only way I know is to use words, images carefully, so that what we see and feel, others may see and feel also.

If not, then Plato’s shadows on the cave walls are only flickers in our personal fire lights. Of course, I’m assuming you read Plato. And the only people I ever met that read Plato were college freshmen.

Forty years ago I was dabbling in writing some free verse on topics in my life. I came upon a collection of top poets of the time. The title/authors I can’t recall. I do remember reading poem after poem that was incomprehensible to me. The collection’s editor gave a commentary after each poem that guessed at its content and meaning. From reading this collection, I drew the conclusion that this was how to write. I decided I didn’t have what it took to be a good poet. I didn’t write or read poetry for another 25 years.

Would too many of us writing for such select audiences result in poetry writing itself out of history by disappearing from the larger culture as relevant?

7 thoughts on “Grounded vs. Obscure Poetry”

  1. Excellent commentary. What you describe is the very reason many of us turned away from poetry. Even today, I only dabble. But I have enjoyed what I have dabbled in. I think how poetry is introduced to children and young adults sets the stage.

    1. Bruce Roseland

      Like photos, it’s not the camera, but the photographer that makes the message. And the message any of us makes is what we want to hand on to the future.

      1. Ted Kooser has a great analogy that extends your idea of the photographer, Bruce. He says as you seek to determine how much of yourself to reveal in the poem, it’s like a person looking outside through a window. Depending on the light inside and out, the poet will see more or less of herself reflected in the window in relation to what she sees through the window. In the writer’s case, the poet controls the light, so it’s up to the poet to control how much of the poem is about the writer and how much is about what is observed.
        Thanks for the opportunity to share.

  2. You have expressed a frustration I’ve often felt when reading poems that make no sense to me. I agree that poets have the right to write poems that can be understood by only a select few who have shared the same experience and would enjoy reading about them. But those aren’t the poems for the general public, as in a magazine. The poems that move me most are those about experiences I can understand and that give me an emotional moment or even evoke a chuckle. Like your poems, Bruce! I don’t have to understand everything in poems, but at least I want to understand enough to enjoy them.

    1. Bruce Roseland

      Thanks Marilyn, How’s this: A poem that doesn’t move us is as good as a kitten laying on our lap that wouldn’t purr.

  3. Carolyn Prentice

    Personal poems can be very healing for the individual. I have written poems to express how I feel or remember or experienced. Those poems are important to me, but my hope is that perhaps they may also be comprehensible (and helpful) to some others if I share them. I think it may be difficult to craft a poem that speaks to everyone. We don’t have to like all poems. We find our own place to share our poems. Keep writing. Keep reaching out. And keep reading. Maybe we will at least get a glimpse of other people’s reality.

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