Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Whose Fault Is It If I Don't Understand?

Two writer friends raised the same issue today, and both were talking about poetry. What do we do when we read a poem that we don't understand? Is it our fault, or the poet's? This question often comes up when talking about the poem published in our Saturday newspaper here in Melbourne, The Age. Most readers and writers of poetry that I know just shake their heads each week. What am I supposed to get from this poem? they ask. I don't understand it, no matter how many times I read it. Am I dumb?

I'm teaching poetry again this year, after a long break, and I think it's a good issue to raise. Sometimes in workshopping I've had a student who insisted that if the others didn't understand the poem, that's just too bad. No changes, no compromises. But at the point at which you put a poem out to the world, or even just one reader, isn't what you are hoping for is communication? Surely as soon as you want or ask for a reader, you are trying to show or tell them something.

In class, we've been reading some of Ted Kooser's book, The Poetry Home Repair Manual, and discussing the points he makes. One is: If a poem doesn't make sense to anyone but its author, nobody but its author will care a whit about it. He also says: I favor poems that keep the obstacles between you and that person [your reader] to a minimum. I agree, and I think some poets are deliberately obscure, and deliberately use language that creates obstacles. Does this mean they don't care about their readers?

Kooser suggests that some poets write difficult poems because they think that's the way to be a poet, and that in some circles, writing poems that are accessible is sneered at. But he agrees that many people give up on poetry because they think it's too much like hard work, in the same way that readers stop reading literary fiction because, at the end of a long working day, they don't want to be challenged, they want to escape. A difficult poem will require you to think, to ponder, and to puzzle (and sometimes to look words up). A deliberately obscure poem, however, won't even let you close enough to read it with a basic level of comprehension.

The reason poetry teachers use Kooser's and Billy Collins' poems so often in the classroom is because they are wonderful examples of how to write something that's both accessible on a first reading and also offers deeper levels if you want to dive in. Ultimately, once a poem is out there, whoever reads it will take from it what they want. They will interpret it in their own way, from their own experiences, and create their own meanings.

As a poet, I want to open the door for the reader, not slam it shut in their face. I hope that my verse novels will cause a child to welcome poetry in the future rather than grimace whenever it's mentioned! (I've seen that awful expression many times!) But I also, as a writer, want to challenge myself. I don't want to write poems that are easy for me. I want to experiment and explore, swoop and dive into language and imagery. But still, ultimately, to remember the person on the other side of the door.


Lisa said...

Great post Sherryl, and having read some of your poetry (thicker than water if I recall) you do a fine job of letting the reader in. I try to do the same with my own poetry...I'm still learning but I practice often, mostly on the train. :)

Sherryl said...

The train is a great place for poem ideas. I know someone who writes most of her poems on the train!

Lisa said...

Are you sure that's not me!? Really...probably 90% of my poetry starts its life on the commute between Cranbourne & Melbourne. I read a lot of poetry on the train too! :)

newgradlibrarian said...

I also think this is true for fiction. I am happy to read something that challenges me and employs great literary technique, but impenetrable? Forget it. I don't think 'my piece of work is so sophisticated no-one can understand it' is about the reader at all.

Sherryl said...

Yes, I agree. I guess if something is published that is impenetrable to only a few readers, then the writer has to accept that and not expect big sales.

catherinemjohnson said...

Very interesting post. I think if it is a verse novel for children they have to understand immediately otherwise they will lose the flow, but individual poems, especially for adults can be more obscure but not totally obscure. I've only just started writing poetry in the last year so I appreciate poetry that you understand but stretches you at the same time.

Sherryl said...

Catherine, I suspect the problem for most people with difficult poems is that they have never been taught how to find their way into the poem. What you learn at school is usually pretty useless and only designed to help you write an essay about it! What we want is a way to approach the poem and learn/work out what it wants to tell us.
But still, most people can't be bothered! So that's when you get the "why can't they write good old rhyming poems that I can understand easily?" response.