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Old 09-14-2017, 05:06 PM
Max Goodman Max Goodman is offline
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Default Obscurity

A poem shouldn't mean but be (MacLeish). But it's natural to want to understand a poem. To what extent should a poem be understandable? Are there types of obscurity that draw us in and other types that push us away?

I'm frequently attracted to things I don't understand in Wallace Stevens, and almost always put off by such things in other poems. I can't put my finger on what it is about Stevens's obscurity--if that's the right word for it--that attracts me.
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Old 09-14-2017, 06:45 PM
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Jayne Osborn Jayne Osborn is offline
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Quote:
To what extent should a poem be understandable?
That's an interesting question, Max, and your own feelings on the subject are equally interesting.

For me, I find I don't get much enjoyment (if any at all) from poems I don't understand. Imagery, metaphor, etc... all that stuff is commendable and necessary, but if a poem, after several readings, leaves me feeling "Huh??" or even "WTF??" then I feel disappointed, to say the least.

I'm not familiar with Wallace Stevens' work so I'm now intrigued as to what level of obscurity you like, and find in his poems. Can you help me out with an example, please?

I shall be very interested in others' views on this; thanks for posing the question.

Jayne
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Old 09-14-2017, 09:16 PM
John Isbell John Isbell is online now
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Here's how I for one discovered Wallace Stevens:

"The Emperor of Ice-Cream


Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month's newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream."

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poe...r-of-ice-cream
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Old 09-14-2017, 09:35 PM
Edmund Conti Edmund Conti is offline
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Jayne, you should get familiar with Wallace Stevens and have a report on my desk by Monday morning.

Here is an excerpt I like. Maybe I just like the idea of it if not the meaning.

only here and there,
an old sailor drunk and asleep in his boots,
catches tigers in red weather.
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Old 09-14-2017, 09:42 PM
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John Whitworth John Whitworth is offline
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How is The Emperor of Ice Cream obscure? It seems quite plain to me.
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Old 09-14-2017, 10:11 PM
John Isbell John Isbell is online now
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I agree, it is quite specific, except perhaps for the line Let be be finale of seem. It's a poem i have enjoyed for some time.

Cheers,
John
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Old 09-15-2017, 12:56 AM
John Isbell John Isbell is online now
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To return to this topic: I think a good example of an obscure poet might be Blake in his long works (The Four Zoas, say), because we don't know his referents. I find that harder to wade through than some appear to, but am probably more turned off by bombast. Surrealism, as a general principle, has room for both, to my mind.
My recent posting "Wisdom and Decay" likely appears obscure to some readers; it's largely about Hoelderlin and Nerval going mad. In its defense, and that of difficult poetry in general, I'll cite Einstein in 1901: Be as simple as possible, but not simpler.

Cheers,
John
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Old 09-15-2017, 02:54 AM
Max Goodman Max Goodman is offline
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Great example, John. (Ed's, too.) It may seem "quite plain" to many readers who like it, but I doubt they all understand it the same way.

Last edited by Max Goodman; 09-15-2017 at 08:22 AM.
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Old 09-15-2017, 04:05 AM
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Ann Drysdale Ann Drysdale is offline
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Jayne - I found the Emperor of Ice Cream to be a particularly American poem, which is more comprehensible to UK readers if the ice cream is replaced by ham sandwiches and the cigar-roller (or more probably his wife) is engaged in their manufacture, cutting the crusts off and slicing them diagonally. (The poem is now a period piece.)

What we have at funerals (Hamlet's baked meats) is seen to be far more important than the corpse, an old woman who has outlived her relevance and (I am extending shamelessly here, based on personal experience) her treasured needlework (a sheet from her notional "bottom drawer"?) put gracelessly to a basic use, while the glass knobs of her old dresser, presumably worth a bit, have already been slid into a mourner's pocket.

Those attending have come so as to seem something, but the poet shows them scoffing the ritual repast, with its special-occasion extra, for what they are.

As I read the poem I am always put in mind of the Duchess of Malfi, whose face had to be covered because she "dazzled" her observer. I like playing with the many reasons for the face-covering here, where the face is the deceased, the feet- just old and anybody's. Another choice between being and seeming, though I am not sure which is which.

And the only ruler at the feast is that yummy ice cream (so much more of a rare treat than it is now) so Death (who he?) shall (here) have no dominion.

If I've got it all wrong and wilfully ignored subtexts and tangents, I am unrepentant. I have long loved this poem for what I think it is.

I shall return to my emboidery.
.

Last edited by Ann Drysdale; 09-15-2017 at 10:30 AM. Reason: displacement activity.
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Old 09-15-2017, 05:16 AM
John Isbell John Isbell is online now
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Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle. She died young.
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