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  #11  
Old 09-15-2017, 08:20 AM
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Aaron Novick Aaron Novick is offline
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My basic rule is that I like enjoy obscurity if the process of unraveling it is pleasant, and dislike it if it feels like wading through sludge. It's generally more enjoyable when the poem has some kind of beauty, some pull of the language even before you understand it cognitively. Then the reading/unraveling experience is one of deepening pre-existing joys. If it's just dense without beauty, it's possible that attractions will reveal themselves on decoding, but why expect it? Why bother?

Authors I take to exemplify this beauty-before-understanding requirement include: Wallace Stevens, the few Ashbery poems I've read (the first few in Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror), Geoffrey Hill.
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Old 09-15-2017, 08:53 AM
Roger Slater Roger Slater is offline
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There are many types of obscurity. One kind depends entirely on the background and education of the reader, who may be called upon to understand various allusions or vocabulary words or myths. Another may be syntactical, in which the reader may be called upon to decipher and assemble clauses and parts of speech that don't appear to fall neatly or traditionally into place. Yet another may be when a poem seems to have a subtext, but the subtext may be requiring more digging and speculation on the part of the reader than usual. And then there are poems that don't try to make "sense" in a linear fashion but are content to evoke and suggest and combine and free associate. One gets the feeling from the best of those that the poet isn't just trying to snow you, but is speaking from a genuine place inside himself that makes some sort of sense to him even if the object isn't to spell it out for the reader. I think what all these kinds of obscurity have in common is that the best examples of each at least let the reader know where they stand. What bothers me about obscurity is when I'm unsure whether it's intentional or if the problem I'm having with the poem is my fault or the poem's fault.
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Old 09-15-2017, 09:10 AM
John Isbell John Isbell is offline
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"from Mercian Hymns
BY GEOFFREY HILL
I

King of the perennial holly-groves, the riven sandstone: overlord of the M5: architect of the historic rampart and ditch, the citadel at Tamworth, the summer hermitage in Holy Cross: guardian of the Welsh Bridge and the Iron Bridge: contractor to the desirable new estates: saltmaster: moneychanger: commissioner for oaths: martyrologist: the friend of Charlemagne.

‘I liked that,’ said Offa, ‘sing it again.’"

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poe.../mercian-hymns

I was taught by Geoffrey Hill back in the mid-1980s. He was not obscure in conversation.
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Old 09-15-2017, 10:15 AM
Matt Q Matt Q is offline
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John, do you consider this an obscure poem? If so in what way?

Last edited by Matt Q; 09-15-2017 at 11:47 AM.
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Old 09-15-2017, 11:01 AM
Max Goodman Max Goodman is offline
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(I'll soon be away from the internet for a few days; my silence won't mean I'm not interested in what's said further here.)

Thanks to everyone who's joined the discussion, and particularly to Aaron and Roger for so directly responding to my question (and to those who've suggested further poems and poets to explore).

I agree with Roger that whether the poet "is speaking from a genuine place" means a lot, but it begs the question: how does a poem convey this? Maybe it boils down to Aaron's point, and we accept as genuine what we find beautiful.
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Old 09-15-2017, 11:31 AM
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Michael Ferris Michael Ferris is offline
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I like indeterminacy of meaning but not obscurity. I think one of the qualities of good art is universality – i.e., connection with the human ‘essence’ in each of us – so I tend to dislike art or poetry that greatly restricts the potential audience. (I recognize that perfect universality is probably unattainable and can conflict with other aesthetic goals.)

Also, for me, good art is emotionally moving, and obscurity usually means perplexity, and perplexity is often emotionally inert, if not downright irritating. Too much focus on the head to the exclusion of the heart.
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Old 09-15-2017, 12:26 PM
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Aaron Novick Aaron Novick is offline
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I may be an oddity in that I keep my heart in my head rather than in my chest, but I find perplexity to be a source of very strong emotions of all valences. And philosophy begins in perplexity, after all...
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Old 09-15-2017, 01:38 PM
Roger Slater Roger Slater is offline
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Isn't that also where it ends?
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Old 09-15-2017, 01:43 PM
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Michael Ferris Michael Ferris is offline
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Hey Aaron,

Philosophy may begin in perplexity, but poetry? Mill said it is feeling confessing itself to itself, and Wordsworth said it was the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings…, and Frost said it begins with a lump in the throat, etc. I’m in their camp. Anyway, I’ve come to accept that there are artists whom I probably will never get, never really appreciate – Schoenberg, Twombly, Rauschenberg, maybe Ashbery – and that’s just the way it is. I think when I sense intellect whelming feeling, I dislike, as far as art goes. As much as I’d like to say that nothing human is foreign to me, in reality my palate has limits. I guess that’s what makes personal taste!

M

Last edited by Michael Ferris; 09-15-2017 at 07:20 PM. Reason: found the Frost quote
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Old 09-15-2017, 02:01 PM
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Aaron Novick Aaron Novick is offline
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Roger: Yes. But in a richer and more nuanced perplexity, which isn't nothing.

Michael: I understand. I find that the world of poetry and of philosophy are not separate for me. Both reach out into all areas of my life. As Plato saw, neither has a special subject matter. Both touch everything. But I'm not trying to change your mind, or your heart. I just find emotion and feeling even in dry ideas: that aridity isn't the privation of feeling, but a positive feeling all on its own. (Though obscurity need not be aridity, at least not beneath the surface. On the surface, I suppose it often is.)
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