Are we being educated here?

In one of the lectures given while he was Oxford Professor of Poetry, on ‘clarity and obscurity’, the now Poet Laureate Simon Armitage recalled attending a poetry reading with a non-poet friend (all the lectures are available to listen to here).

After the reading, the friend asks Armitage about the mini-introductions the readers had given to their poems: why, his friend wants to know, don’t they put them in the books? In reply, Armitage reels off various defences – a book is a privileged space, that any one explanation might preclude other readings.

“I still think they should put them in the books,” his friend says. “Or in the poem.”

While he doesn’t go as far as advocating for written intros, Armitage goes on to describe how poems can be more or less generous with the information they offer, and suggests that the modern tendency to hold something back – those references which have a personal, or particular, but unexplained resonance – is an attempt by poets to recreate the kind of enigma which form previously provided.

Free verse is sometimes defended as a more inclusive way of writing, so it is curious that it often goes hand in hand with obfuscation, deliberate or otherwise. What, Armitage asks, if obscurity is just another ‘club membership by which the ignorant and uninformed are kept outside the door’?

Several of the examples of the poems Armitage discusses are ekphrastic poetry: responses to works of art. He shows how some contemporary examples require the reader to be familiar with niche works of art (allowing for the fact nicheness is relative). Other poems do not even reference the work they are responding to: only someone ‘in the know’ would know the poem is a response at all.

What, Armitage asks, is the thought process behind deciding not to give the reader this kind of information? And what does that say about our responsibilities as readers?

By contrast, W. H. Auden’s ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’, one of my favourite poems full stop, describes the whole picture: it takes what Armitage calls a ‘belt and braces’ approach, even at the risk of providing ‘unnecessary subtitles’ to a familiar image.

That image, The Fall of Icarus by Breughel, was not familiar to me when I first read the poem, though I knew the myth. But that is the point. The poem still works: it might even work if you didn’t know the myth, or at least make you want to seek out both the story and the picture. The enigma is in the delivery of the idea of the awful ordinariness of suffering (in the rhymes, as Armitage puts it).

I think the questions Armitage is raising are important ones, although, like him, I am not clear about the answers. There are no universal references, but poetry cannot be a private language.

I also wonder if, at least more recently, the internet has encouraged writers to feel like they can demand more of their readers. Armitage describes having to Google a sculpture in order to properly appreciate one poem. If Auden’s readers had wanted to see Breughel’s The Fall of Icarus for themselves they would have had to go to Brussels (I Googled that), or find a reproduction.

NB In the spirit of explanation, the title of this blog is taken from a line in Armitage’s lecture

7 thoughts on “Are we being educated here?

  1. r.Douglas

    I agree poetry cannot be a private language… but the closely held can work/serve as a public eavesdropped colloquy between poet, (subject matter), and mythic reader. And that comment doesn’t do this post justice. But thanks.


    1. jwikeley Post author

      No – thank you! I know what you mean. It’s better to feel like you’re overhearing something than being lectured at. It’s always disconcerting if the poet has the reader too firmly in their sights…


  2. Jonathan Davidson

    Interesting piece. I’m increasingly inclined to give readers the ‘means of understanding’, either in the poem or around it. So many poems simply lock out readers or alternatively, don’t have much to offer other than obfuscation.


  3. Tim Love

    “I also wonder if, at least more recently, the internet has encouraged writers to feel like they can demand more of their readers.” – poets have said this to me. I’m less likely to add footnotes to my stuff nowadays.

    Kona MacPhee wrote “Perfect Blue companion” to accompany the poems in her book. I wish more poets would to this. Jonathan Edwards online has described the writing of his ‘How to Renovate a Morris Minor’ poem, which is a start.

    I’ll end with some quotes –

    “Poets, on the face of it, have either got to be easier or to write their own notes; readers have either got to take more trouble over reading or cease to regard notes as pretentious and a sign of bad poetry” – William Empson, “Argufying”, 1987.

    “It is tactful, when making an obscure reference, to arrange that the verse shall be intelligible even when the reference is not understood.” – “Seven Types of Ambiguity”, W. Empson

    “if some young poets were as watchful about needless obscurity as they are about needless sentimentality you might have heard of them”, Glyn Maxwell, “On Poetry”, Oberon Books, 2012

    “Some of the most celebrated “difficult” poetry of the past ten years seems to me derivative, mechanical, shallow, soulless, and too clever by half”, Stephen Burt, “Close Call with Nonsense”, Graywolf Press, 2009

    “There is a certain glory in not being understood”, Baudelaire, The Structure of Modern Poetry

    “difficult poetry is the most democratic, because you are doing your audience the honour of supposing that they are intelligent human beings. If you write as if you had to placate or in any way entice their lack of interest, then I think you are making condescending assumptions about people”, Geoffrey Hill


    1. jwikeley Post author

      Thanks for these thoughts and quotes Tim. The Empson is quite funny because I find his notes hardly any help at all – the poems are just too obscure (for me), even with the explanations!


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