Obscurity, Clarity, & Trying to Mean

By Kaelyn Riley November 12, 2013  |  Poetry, Teaching, Uncategorized, Writing  |  2 brave citizens responded!

I have a Billy Collins face. This is not at all to say that I resemble former U. S. poet laureate Billy Collins; what I mean is, there is an expression that I make whenever Billy Collins is brought up in conversation in my vicinity, whenever I feel compelled to respond to that situation honestly (which is, I suppose, at least most of the time). If I had to name it, I’d call it something between a grimace and a sneer—a patented combo of exhaustion and annoyance.

Let me be clear: Billy Collins is the best one in the world at being Billy Collins. If what we hope for is to proffer poetry that stirs the passions of our students, to ground non-poetry-readers in comfortable material, to usher them smoothly into the experience of the poem, there is perhaps no greater model. (Here’s a link to his “Introduction to Poetry,” which always earns a spot on my syllabus when I teach introductory creative writing classes: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/176056).  In his introduction to Poetry 180—a contemporary anthology designed to bring poetry out of the classroom and to the people, a sort of academic’s answer to slam poetry’s popular dictum that “performance puts asses in the seats”—he points to a particularly sensitive (and, oftentimes, depressing) issue in contemporary poetry when he cites a high school girl’s reaction: “Whenever I read a modern poem, it’s like my brother has his foot on the back of my neck in the swimming pool.” Yikes.

Collins’ own work is characterized by humor and simplicity. His poems are almost exclusively narrative, and in this sense they offer new readers of poetry a welcoming kind of clarity, a kind of conversational nature that takes pains to invite the reader in, which has come to mean accessibility. For young poets, who are often busy trying to define the stretch and breadth of their own voices, it’s difficult not to ask this question: Do I offer warmth and narrative and ease to my reader, in the hopes that I may someday become that Thing that Everyone Wants to Read? Collins only ever reads to packed houses, and has made more money from his work than perhaps any other poet in history. It’s hard to argue with that kind of authority.

And yet, it’s not. Not really. Perhaps the most infuriating thing Collins writes in his introduction (and, real talk, there’s a lot to choose from) is that the goal of this anthology was to assemble a selection of “short, clear, contemporary poems which any listener could basically ‘get’ on first hearing—poems whose injection of pleasure is immediate.” Again, you guys: yikes.

I think poetry is not always meant for ease. I think it’s not always meant for comfort, and while these things should of course be considerations for new readers, I can’t in good conscience place them as highly as Collins does in my hierarchy of concerns. In 2003, Collins was championing the misappropriation of poetry into what all of my students would define as our “fast-paced technological society”—poetry is a DVD, basically, so put it in and press play. Poetry is a TV dinner—nutrients ready to consume in under two minutes, perfectly proportioned and neatly compartmentalized. You hardly even have to listen, so don’t bother to stop Tweeting; you’ll still “get” what it “means.”

 This semester, I’ve spent a lot of time—certainly more than ever before—with W. S. Merwin.   At AWP in Boston last spring, I was introduced to his poem “The Nails”  (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/learning/guide/238502#poem) via a lovely and thoughtful panel called “1963: 50 Years Later,” which like most things at AWP turned out to not really be what I expected. But, like, it was still poems.

I’ve really got it bad for this poem. For one thing, it was written in 1963 and yet still feels fresh, relevant, and poignant, and perhaps it feels that way because it really speaks to this struggle of obscurity versus clarity. I feel the opening of ambiguity in “The Nails,” whose refrain seems to me to echo across these last paragraphs that I’ve written: “It isn’t as simple as that” (21).

Often during my poet-ucation, this has felt like the question of my practice—to write a clear and accessible thing à la Billy Collins, or to allow some (necessary?) confusion in the work of the poem, to run the risk of being less reader-friendly. I’ve come down on both sides of this debate over the last several years, and I feel more okay about that now than ever before—I think it’s probable that my inner articulation may be a tidal thing, that at various points in my life (in my schooling, in my geography, in my love, in my body, et cetera) it’s needed plain speech to get its poem out, and that sometimes it’s required something less definite than that. I think the important thing is the compromise between the two, the disavowing of the value system—that “more complex” doesn’t mean smarter, better, more powerful, more successful, just as “more accessible” doesn’t mean any of these things.

In CO150, I tell my students that the many-syllabled overly-descriptive academic speak that they’ve been taught to adopt is a bunch of crap. I can’t stand to read the way they’ve been taught to write, with sentences that meander on for days with clause after clause tacked on like wet socks on a clothesline, heavy and dense and verbless. I tell them on the first day of class to write me a page on why they came to college, and I tell them to write it the way they would speak it—to their roommates or friends or teammates or whoever.

They gape at me. Most of what they do in the first week of class is gape. “The way I’d speak it? Really?” Yep.

 I call them out on a lot of Fucks and YOLO!s in that first assignment. I point out a lot of unfinished thoughts, mostly in the form of unfinished sentences. Slowly, daily, our understanding of what it means to write the way you’d speak begins to evolve. We begin to draw something of a differentiation between flexing your voice (see: that time several paragraphs ago when I told you I’ve “got it bad” for a W. S. Merwin masterpiece) and breaking a pact with your audience (see: Fuck, YOLO!). “Write the way you’d speak” becomes “write with the most pristine version of your speaking voice” becomes “write this the way you’d say it to yourself.” By the end of the semester, I honestly couldn’t care less about the homonym errors (though escalade for escalate gets me every time) and the who/whom and the affect/effect, as long as what they’re saying is honest. Even if it’s just some honesty on the sentence level, ie: subject followed by predicate, which is harder than it seems it would or ought to be. I think the real work of teaching students to write is teaching them to stop being afraid of saying something.

 Often, in the past, I think I’ve written through obscurity out of fear of what my verb might be. But just as often, I think (I hope), it’s because I find ambiguity necessary, and that I know it—as Merwin knows it—to be so much more than a cowardly practice. In writing, in the practice of trying to create a world that makes sense to me, in the practice of naming my inner tidal articulation, I value that which allows me to say several things at once. And I think we all have to. Because if the task is to write an accessible poem, I think I’d write it the way I’d speak it to myself. (I think of Merwin’s “Memory of Spring”: “The first composer / could hear only what he could write”.) I think a lot of us would. And not everyone lives or writes or speaks or loves or thinks the way I do. I think it’s precisely the promise of some obscurity—the thing that’s netted so many poems in the realm of “inaccessible”—that might allow my reader closer to my mind and heart, via his own.

In the Paris Review Interviews No. 10, Robert Creeley says that the poetic pursuit is a variable one, that in some ways to propose a “list of rules for all poets would be absurd.” It’s easy, in our environment, to see poetry the opposite way—that we’re here to learn the craft, or learn to perfect it, from our professors, so that each week in workshop feels like the implementation of some new understanding of another tool for getting there. But the truth, I think, is in what Creeley says: there’s no end to it. What you plow, whether you do it or not, is your own business. And it seems like, if I can remember back to the moment I first knew I loved language, that’s kind of been the whole point all along.



Kaelyn Riley


Kaelyn Riley is an MFA candidate in poetry, currently teaching CO150: College Composition, reading submissions at the Colorado Review, and trying to remember where she put her keys. Favorites include obnoxious eyeglasses, coffee ice cream, and Kanye.

2 Responses to “Obscurity, Clarity, & Trying to Mean”

  1. Todd Mitchell says:

    Well said, Kaelyn! I love the line, “the real work of teaching students to write is teaching them to stop being afraid of saying something.” I must confess, I’ve admired Billy Collin’s ability to write such simple, seemingly honest poems so clearly and plainly (because I know that there is nothing simple to doing this, having spent twenty years trying to tell a “simple story,” and having never quite succeeded in doing that). However, I also admire poets who risk uncertainty, and wander out on words not knowing where they lead or what (or if) they might mean. This takes courage — the sort of courage that keeps our language alive and vibrant — and I think one of the reasons Billy Collins can engender such strong negative reactions is that we might perceive him as making such risk taking more difficult (for instance, through his snipes at more obscure poetry in his 180 intro). What I admire most in this essay, though, is the insight that it does not need to be this way. That one can both appreciate Collin’s clarity, and risk obscurity. Merwin (another favorite of mine) is someone who I think embodies this well. Great essay!

  2. poemboy says:

    Thanks for this blog entry. You seem like a fine teacher, the kind I would have loved to have when I was a hapless undergraduate desperate to know more about language and learning.

    I remain fascinated by the ongoing discussion—forever unwinding—about accessibility and obscurity, ease and difficulty, in contemporary poetry. A concept that seems to be missing from the discussion might be “opacity.” More on that in a minute.

    Accessible poems can also be enormously complex poems if their clarity provides a view of something that is itself complex. In other words, the poet who writes clearly about complexity gives the reader the best invitation they’ll get to enter the subject’s complexity, to be engaged by it and delighted by it. This works for everyone from Billy Collins to John Ashbery to Rod Silliman. Poets who employ levels of obscurity—specifically, references to obscure things—ask readers to look up or learn of the obscure thing; those that are willing to do so may find the poem then clarifies for them. Poets who fracture syntax, refute meaning through circumlocution or random use of language, ask for something else from readers—that they suspend linear thinking and wallow instead in the sparks and gaps that are created when language dodges our attempts to decode it.

    In the end, any of these approaches can work for readers if the poem is not utterly opaque. Opacity is where poems go to die. Opaque poems will not, finally, yield to the reader, no matter their “skill” or education. There may be many reasons for opacity, though one generalization that might hold is that the writer could not reconcile experimentation with clarity. I hasten to reiterate my point from above that clarity does not mean accessibility; it is a quality of any poem, whether accessible, obscure, or difficult, that results in readers being able to apprehend the subject in a way that matters. This connection can depend on levels of reading skill, attention, education, exposure, and sheer will, and so different poets use their favorite approach and therefore select their audience—the people who will grasp and enjoy their particular style.

    What galls me is when poets make their choices and then presume readers who can’t or won’t engage with the work are stupid, mediocre, or too ignorant to recognize real artistic merit. A successful poem, whatever its school of origin or quality of rendering, works for the audience to which it’s written, and no more or less. Billy Collins has the large audience he does because he anticipates and understands its parameters, and writes in such a way to capture a large field. This is neither good nor bad. It just is. But that doesn’t stop people from casting aspersions on the audience segments they can’t reach. The L-A-N-G-U-A-G-U-E poets I first encountered in San Francisco in the early 1980s knew their audience was limited, and projected the attitude that this was fine because, well, fuck the stupid people anyway. Now, 35 years later, they populate certain academies and find there the greatest concentration, or potential concentration, of their audience. That audience is not proportionally larger than it ever was, and anyway, as Orr points out in Beautiful and Pointless, you can fit the active American audience for poetry into one NFL stadium. So we’re slicing a small pie thinly.

    Any poet ought to write what he or she loves to write, and then accept the audience they get rather than disdain those who won’t join. I’d love to see a much, much larger audience for poetry in general, and maybe that’s what Collins and others of his ilk provide. But let’s not kid ourselves; poetry faces stiff competition in the media marketplace, and does not seem to be making huge gains. Meanwhile, let’s avoid using excess hot air to pump up our particular balloons of self esteem. I reject the idea of poetry on any kind of hierarchy, with certain schools seeing themselves at the top and other schools at the bottom. Rather, I prefer to draw it as a level spectrum, and acknowledge the choices we make place us as poets somewhere upon the line, with a corollary audience share.

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