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I read this today by an author named Maria Mazziotti Gillan, and I was looking to get some thoughts from you guys on it:

"In 1980, I had to pick up William Stafford at the airport to drive him to a reading that he was doing for me at the Poetry Center. Quickly, I realized that he was very upset because a critic had called his writing "simple." During his reading he gave a brilliant talk on simplicity and the difficulty of achieving it in writing. I've always felt that the simpler something appears, the harder it is to do.

Recently a student sent me a poem she had written in response to a prompt. The poem had some good, clear lines in it, but it was wrapped in complicated imagery and fifty-dollar words. The poem also made very tentative dips toward real emotion, and then ran away from it through its use of an elaborate extended metaphor that seemed stiff and forced. When I pointed this fact out to her, she was reluctant to get rid of most of the esoteric language, and the screen she had built with deliberately obscure language. I finally went through the poem cutting it down to the bone, paring away all the obscure language and most of the complicated metaphor. This student, having been schooled in a Ph.D. literature program, felt that it wasn't a poem if it didn't have all this extra clothing on it.

...I think of my own poems, the ones I wrote thirty years ago which suffered from the deliberately obscure Greek god reference syndrome, and the ones I write today that are as direct and honest and plain as I can make them...I sometimes think that some people writing today -- whole schools of people, in fact -- are writing for five people at an Ivy League school. These are the ones who bemoan the fact that their books don't sell. They are also the same ones who denigrate Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac, that NPR program in which he reads one poem a day. They denigrate it because the poems Keillor reads are comprehensible and appeal to a large audience.

Personally, I am grateful to Garrison Keillor for that program, for making poetry available to a large number of people and for helping to overcome the stereotype of poetry as incomprehensible, that stereotype that has haunted poetry for years... Even Shakespeare wrote for the people in the pit, the ones who bought tickets to stand through the performance, as well as for the people who could afford expensive seats."

When I write, I do try to write as simply as possible, but I do fear that people might think my poems are unsophisticated. I have a friend on the other end of the spectrum who uses lots of complicated references and obscure words (they're good words, just not common). I like her work, and I think it's really good. Sometimes, I think she'll have no audience, though, and I do wonder (like the author above wonders) if she isn't hiding behind the language in some sense. I'm torn -- maybe it's just apples and oranges???

I'm wondering how you all go about navigating this issue of balancing accessibility and sophistication.

Love ya, Pigpen!

lizziep
I almost always choose simplicity. Though that fits my style of writing. There is no hard-and-fast rule, but generally I find complex words that don't fit well to be like forced rhyme. They draw too much attention to themselves.
the best poems are poems that can be understood on multiple levels. If you start using jargon or/and overtly fanciful language you kinda limit your poems ability to speak to all audiences.

Also... your poems vocabulary should match your poems topic. It's kind of distracting when it doesn't. I think in general, using fancy words in poems is a choice driven by a romantic view of what poetry is.

Poetry is shit generally. Short and simple. People try to put a shine on it and end up smearing it everywhere.
(08-24-2016, 07:52 AM)lizziep Wrote: [ -> ]I read this today by an author named Maria Mazziotti Gillan, and I was looking to get some thoughts from you guys on it:

"In 1980, I had to pick up William Stafford at the airport to drive him to a reading that he was doing for me at the Poetry Center. Quickly, I realized that he was very upset because a critic had called his writing "simple." During his reading he gave a brilliant talk on simplicity and the difficulty of achieving it in writing. I've always felt that the simpler something appears, the harder it is to do.

Recently a student sent me a poem she had written in response to a prompt. The poem had some good, clear lines in it, but it was wrapped in complicated imagery and fifty-dollar words. The poem also made very tentative dips toward real emotion, and then ran away from it through its use of an elaborate extended metaphor that seemed stiff and forced. When I pointed this fact out to her, she was reluctant to get rid of most of the esoteric language, and the screen she had built with deliberately obscure language. I finally went through the poem cutting it down to the bone, paring away all the obscure language and most of the complicated metaphor. This student, having been schooled in a Ph.D. literature program, felt that it wasn't a poem if it didn't have all this extra clothing on it.

...I think of my own poems, the ones I wrote thirty years ago which suffered from the deliberately obscure Greek god reference syndrome, and the ones I write today that are as direct and honest and plain as I can make them...I sometimes think that some people writing today -- whole schools of people, in fact -- are writing for five people at an Ivy League school. These are the ones who bemoan the fact that their books don't sell. They are also the same ones who denigrate Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac, that NPR program in which he reads one poem a day. They denigrate it because the poems Keillor reads are comprehensible and appeal to a large audience.

Personally, I am grateful to Garrison Keillor for that program, for making poetry available to a large number of people and for helping to overcome the stereotype of poetry as incomprehensible, that stereotype that has haunted poetry for years... Even Shakespeare wrote for the people in the pit, the ones who bought tickets to stand through the performance, as well as for the people who could afford expensive seats."

When I write, I do try to write as simply as possible, but I do fear that people might think my poems are unsophisticated. I have a friend on the other end of the spectrum who uses lots of complicated references and obscure words (they're good words, just not common). I like her work, and I think it's really good. Sometimes, I think she'll have no audience, though, and I do wonder (like the author above wonders) if she isn't hiding behind the language in some sense. I'm torn -- maybe it's just apples and oranges???

I'm wondering how you all go about navigating this issue of balancing accessibility and sophistication.

Love ya, Pigpen!

lizziep


The question seems to set up an easy dichotomy between the simple poem and the complex.  It is colored through the writer's desires for justification through the language and the disdain for "obscure" or "complex" and "ivy league", etc.

It is a false dichotomy.

The best poems are written to be as they are without an eye toward simplicity or complexity.  Each word fits not because it is simple or complex because it is correct.

A poem that is too simple - without any layers of meaning or thought toward the beauty of language is like a fart joke - funny the first time but not really worth reading twice.  It focuses strictly on meaning - as if such a tawdry thing could justify the work of poetry.

No, arguments and statements are best accomplished through prose as it is a more efficient vehicle.

A poem that tries to be complex is a garish thing that calls attention to itself as if, in its solipsism, it could justify the work of poetry.  Like pretty clothing, it calls attention to the raiment.

There is no easy answer.  A poem must sing - that is true.  A poem must have something to say or there is no point in it saying anything no matter how pretty. A poem cannot just say what it means directly or it is false witness.  Why?  Because it mirrors life in which there are depths and layers.  Who trust someone who preaches that they have all the answers.

No, a poem sings of life and a reader finds meaning because there is meaning in life if the poem reads true.
"Simplicity" is like "good"; both terms are too subjective and too abstract to be useful.

What's simple to some people isn't to others. It comes down to your choice of audience.

If your intended audience is familiar with Greek mythology, Greek gods can vastly simplify your poetry.
The single word "Sisyphus" (which still works) easily takes the place of 10 to 30 other words.

Using uncommon terminology limits your audience, appealing to everyone narrows your subject matter.
Can't have it all.
Nice to see you milo. Granted the question is a bit leading. I took it mostly to mean complexity for its own sake--not necessarily any depth or layering of meaning in the poem.

I don't disagree with the points you make though.
That was one lovely response, milo! The last sentence reminded me of Hemingway -- er, mainly the character of Hemingway I watched in "Midnight in Paris", although I hear that film's pretty accurate.

I don't think "simplicity" is all subjective though. Simplicity in thought, maybe, though I don't know enough about the in-stone bits of philosophy to address that -- but in language? I remember watching about a research where they built some software to tally the frequency of words from within certain bodies of work -- I bet that research can be extended to most literature, so we'll have a good guess of all the most commonly used, and thus known, words in English. And then tie that research down to the frequency of introducing relatively obscure words in popular (not necessarily good, just popular -- but not merely published in the internet, either. Has to have been printed, which I'm guessing is more discerning), and I bet you can have a proper, empirical definition of what "simple" is, in poetry. Yes, one must be accurate when it comes to choosing words, but I don't think poets who understand the function of their work actually think in all-latinate -- such is the realm of scholars and try-hards. Ultimately, if all your thoughts have a tendency to language that isn't as accessible to your intended audience, then you'll just have to change your style, your language, of thinking, just as a poet in French wanting to make it in the American market without involving translators would have to learn to speak fluently English first.
(08-24-2016, 10:55 PM)RiverNotch Wrote: [ -> ]That was one lovely response, milo! The last sentence reminded me of Hemingway -- er, mainly the character of Hemingway I watched in "Midnight in Paris", although I hear that film's pretty accurate.

I don't think "simplicity" is all subjective though. Simplicity in thought, maybe, though I don't know enough about the in-stone bits of philosophy to address that -- but in language? I remember watching about a research where they built some software to tally the frequency of words from within certain bodies of work -- I bet that research can be extended to most literature, so we'll have a good guess of all the most commonly used, and thus known, words in English. And then tie that research down to the frequency of introducing relatively obscure words in popular (not necessarily good, just popular -- but not merely published in the internet, either. Has to have been printed, which I'm guessing is more discerning), and I bet you can have a proper, empirical definition of what "simple" is, in poetry. Yes, one must be accurate when it comes to choosing words, but I don't think poets who understand the function of their work actually think in all-latinate -- such is the realm of scholars and try-hards. Ultimately, if all your thoughts have a tendency to language that isn't as accessible to your intended audience, then you'll just have to change your style, your language, of thinking, just as a poet in French wanting to make it in the American market without involving translators would have to learn to speak fluently English first.

As I tried to include in my response - complexity cannot be an end.
Neither can simplicity - the end needs to be the poem itself.

The author of the article states (in an over-complex fashion) that simplicity > complexity in poetry.  He uses examples of metaphor, allusion and language and complex imagery.

Then, in a rather circuitous route, he suggests that either you agree with him or you think that complexity>simplicity.  Here is the false dichotomy.

Poem are simple because life is simple.
Poems are complex because life is complex.

Both of these statements are true.

(08-24-2016, 02:16 PM)Todd Wrote: [ -> ]Nice to see you milo. Granted the question is a bit leading. I took it mostly to mean complexity for its own sake--not necessarily any depth or layering of meaning in the poem.

I don't disagree with the points you make though.

Somehow my response came across as complexity>simplicity which is not my intent.  My intent was to show that neither thought is correct and neither should be an end goal for a poem - the poem itself has to be the end goal.
I do think the author implies that "simplicity > complexity" in poetry, but I don't think it's in the sense of "poetry as an imitation of life" -- I think it's in the sense of "poetry as a tool to communicate with". And I'd consider those two things different, since poetry can be just as much an imitation of life as other forms of art, just it can be as much a tool to communicate with as those same forms, only it can imitate life in the same way, yet it fundamentally cannot communicate in the same way (excluding, say, a concrete poem compared to visual art, or a lyric poem compared to a song, but I think in those cases a certain dichotomy in analysis forms, where the careful listener would separate the appropriate elements first, instead of trying to load them all in one go). I think his problem is more that he doesn't define what he means by "simplicity" -- by my definition, "fifty dollar words" and "esoteric language" are definitely complex, while "complicated imagery" and "elaborate extended metaphor" aren't, at least not entirely. And surely neither complexity nor simplicity can be ends by themselves, but if the goal of poetry is to communicate (and I surely believe it is -- it's easy and legal enough to express emotions by shouting them into the cosmos), then simplicity, ie the poem's becoming accessible to its intended audience, is one good end.
So, here we have a fundamental disagreement. I do not believe the goal of poetry is to communicate. It is a poor tool to that effect and almost any other form would suit the purpose of communication better. Indeed, if your goal is to communicate, why not use simple prose?

Good poetry has no meaning. It presents a portion of life or the human condition. If the presentation is true, readers find meaning because there is meaning in life and the human condition but a poem that attempts to convey a message is always doomed to fail.
(08-25-2016, 12:05 AM)milo Wrote: [ -> ]So, here we have a fundamental disagreement.  I do not believe the goal of poetry is to communicate.  It is a poor tool to that effect and almost any other form would suit the purpose of communication better.  Indeed, if your goal is to communicate, why not use simple prose?

Good poetry has no meaning.  It presents a portion of life or the human condition. If the presentation is true, readers find meaning because there is meaning in life and the human condition but a poem that attempts to convey a message is always  doomed to fail.
I do believe it's goal is to communicate, as with all forms of art. If one wants to express himself, one should get a therapist -- if one wants to "present a portion of life or the human condition", then one is communicating something by the very choice of said portion. A man who shows a picture of a boy playing with his mother is communicating something very different from a man who shows a picture of said boy crying afterwards, is he not? Or is it the duty of the poet to play God, and show life as a whole to his audience? And as for your second note, that it is "a poor tool to that effect", I believe that the form is part of the function -- the Proverbs wouldn't be as memorable or effective if they weren't proverbs, now, would they? That is to say, what a poet communicates isn't restricted to thoughts, ie "a war poem" or "a love poem" -- there's also emotions, visceral reactions, even spiritual impulses; that a poet doesn't have to be conscious of what he communicates, although consciousness helps pretty much everyone in the long run; and that everything, from the form, to the "message", to the date and place of publication, to the intended audience, informs what a poem is.

Which is, yes, ultimately a "presentation of a portion of life or the human condition". But again, that presentation is communication -- an exchange of information, of thoughts, of ideas, but being art, all in their broader senses -- unless there's no one at either the giving or the receiving end. But now the issue is clarified -- maybe we use different terms for the same thing?

Although what do you mean by "no meaning"? Do you mean to say that the author did not intend meaning into its writing? If so, isn't that an incredibly flawed premise, inductively because Shakespeare and co. are considered some of the best writers ever, while illiterate street kids and automatic writers I can't refer to by proper nouns, and deductively because poetry, being a medium that's rooted in language, which as far as I know is itself rooted in conscious thought, cannot exist without at least a spec of conscious thought? And how limited are you by your conception of "presents a portion of life or the human condition"? Because if you mean a portion as in a complete (and by complete, I mean one inclusive of all views) microcosm, then again, playing God -- if by portion you meant a limited section, then again that choice of section is necessarily a communicative act -- and if by portion you meant a microcosm whose structures only mimic life, and so is itself not the whole of life, then it becomes the choice of symbols, of what becomes one's representation of, say, the spiritual realm or the material realm that becomes communicative.

Finally, I'm not majoring in philosophy, linguistics, art studies, etc, and the longest continuous work on literary criticism that I've read so far is Northrop Frye's "Anatomy of Criticism" (which I found useful, but ultimately not definitive), so yeah, my use of terms is probably all mangled. Not an excuse, by the way, but if you spot any blatant errors, please do make a note. I think I've already spotted one -- that weird redefinition of what one can communicate with poetry. Oh well.
I think there is a big difference between "poetry communicates" and "the purpose of poetry is to communicate". If you purpose is to communicate then you have chosen a terrible vehicle in poetry. As for meaning, consider the following:

You and I have a friend, Mr. Prose, who is an amateur big game hunter and, in the opportunity of a lifetime, he gets a chance to go to Africa and hunt a bull lion. When he returns, he wants to communicate the great experience so he tells us of the exotic food he ate and of the great people he met and describes the excitement of the hunt and the elation of finally killing a great bull lion and he communicates his message well as both you and I agree that it sounds lovely.

Now, let's say that at the last minute, our friend Mr. Prose fell ill so his brother Mr. Poetry went on the hunt instead. When Mr. Poetry returned he wanted to communicate how great the experience was but instead of telling us, he takes us both to Africa and has us relive his expedition. At the end, you agree that the experience was wonderful and fulfilling but I am aghast at the awfulness of it all. Well, I guess Mr. Poetry just did not communicate as well as Mr. Prose.
I think that poetry both communicates and has as its purpose communication -- I suppose I conflated senses there. The problem with your analogy is that Mr. Poetry did not tell you in poetry, he made you relive the expedition, which isn't what poetry does. And say I took your analogy less literally -- if Mr. Poetry were any good at his job, he would have emphasized the glory and hidden all the awful things, which does not mean resorting to prose. And if poetry's job is to show and emphasize everything, ie a whole picture in another sense, instead of just present (and by the choice of what is presented, communicate) certain things, then that again would be playing God -- how many poems talking about "her eyes" actually discuss the scientific properties of her eyes? Or their historical precedent? Or how the poet even knew what 'eyes' were? -- rather, that wouldn't be poetry, or there are no true poems (a logical fallacy, I think).

Take a more direct example: Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum est". Was his purpose to present the horrors of war? Let's say yes -- the work itself is good proof. But why the horrors of war -- why not the glories? the minor annoyances? even the mundane things? You could say that it's because the horrors of war is the only aspect of war that makes it life, which of course is wrong -- see, say, the Iliad, or Henry V. You could say that it's because the horrors of war was the most interesting at the time, which again is wrong -- there are just as many stories of heroism in the Great War as there are horrors (in fact, the fact that these horrors existed sort of supported all the heroics). You could say that his writing was automatic -- but then, how would he have written so coherently (or rather, you could look at your own process and see how not-entirely-automatic it all is)? So the most likely reason is his purpose was to present the horrors of war, to communicate some sort of message -- whether the horrors of war are horrible or whether he just had a bad experience is sort of out of the scope of this expansion. Now, would his piece have been any more effective if he wrote prosaically (and even then, what sort of prose?), if he simply wrote out, say, "Chlorine gas drowns you in air. Now, would you say so happily, 'Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori'?" The thought, sure, but if his purpose was to show how horrible war is, then you probably wouldn't have felt it. The form is part of the function, and both poetry and prose communicate, just different things, ie in different ways.
Of course Wilfred could have shown a movie on mustard gas that could have been far more effective at communicating the "horrors of war"

Do you believe the message in Dulce et Decorum est is that war is terrible? If that is the case, I have some bad news for you.

Do you believe Shakespeare is trying to communicate that this lad is fair or that should reproduce or that he loves some lass in his sonnets? What poor message would this be?

If the purpose of poetry is to communicate, is the purpose of reading poetry to receive a communication?

(I am not sure where the automatic writing is coming from as I believe it to be shite)
Quote:She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

In simple language:

Quote:She's pretty. I like moons and I like her too.
Great discussion.
Going back to the OP's point, I believe simplicity or complexity in poetry are themselves means to the end of creating a lasting impression on the reader's mind.
Nobody understands a poem like 'I see the boys of summer', but the language is hypnotic, I don't know if you'd call East Coker complex or not, but it took me several readings to understand the literal meaning of the poem. Hopkins is convoluted but wonderful. Browning is convoluted and unreadable. I know Leanne likes Browning though. This is for her.
Compared to his 'To Autumn'; Keats's 'Ode to Psyche' has a more complicated structure and a more roundabout way of getting to the point. But of his odes, it's the one I most remember ('where branched thoughts new grown with pleasant pain/ instead of pines shall murmur in the wind' etc).
What about simple poems? Are there any great, simple poems?
In English literature, probably some of Shelley's and Tennyson's lyrics. But over time I've been dulled to the charms of a 'Break, break, break' - it made a great impression on me when I was 10; now it's like elevator music - whereas 'the agony of flame that cannot singe a sieve' haunts me still. Complex poems are a treat for the mind, and like bitter chocolate or stinky cheese, the taste for them grows with time and age.

Milo summed it up in the third or fourth post, but there's no reason to let a perfect conclusion get in the way of a good discussion!
(08-25-2016, 04:27 AM)Leanne Wrote: [ -> ]
Quote:She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

In simple language:

Quote:She's pretty.  I like moons and I like her too.

Hmmmmm, I actually think that that poem makes a better case for simplicity than obscurity. The words are easily accessible and the metaphor (the night sky) is available in all its glory the world over. No matter how unsophisticated the person, they'd be familiar with the beauty of the stars and the night sky.

I didn't read the quote as saying that metaphor was bad or that form/rhyme scheme was too complex. I, of course, have the benefit of having the book, and she advocates reading as much poetry (of all cultures and ages) as possible.
I asked a relative once to rate my agreeableness on a scale of 1 to 10. He gave me a 1. I don't agree with any of these points in their entirety.

As Milo says, the goal is the poem. But I do not think that means one (particularly the new writers) should not concern themselves with their level of complexity. At the risk of making this discussion like so many others, I'm going to give my "layers" statement: blah blah blah layers blah blah blah layers blah blah blah layers. Okay, that's out of the way, I think we all get the point there. Complex / obscure words are silly if they add nothing to the art of the poem. Personally, if I see one of those fancy words in the wrong place, I assume the writer is even more pretentious than myself.

A lot of poems may seem to use more words than necessary, often able to summarized in a brief sentence or two (see Leanne's example). To justify the length of a poem, its complexity, or its choice of words, there must be an artistic reason, in my opinion. The position of words, clauses, and syllables, is very important to me. It changes the poem from a verbal expression to a visual and aural expression. Another layer! *mind-blown*

Not sure if these thoughts have come across clearly, it's late and my brain is a little burnt out. I will be watching this discussion.
1. Always identify your audience.
2. Always write to your audience.
3. Always.
(08-25-2016, 12:45 PM)UselessBlueprint Wrote: [ -> ]A lot of poems may seem to use more words than necessary, often able to summarized in a brief sentence or two (see Leanne's example). 

Leanne was, I'm sure, making the opposite point. But it's interesting that Byron's celebrated poem is not that great by modern standards: the only wow point is the enjambment at the end of L1.
I am disappointed that people on this thread are essentially saying the same thing, basically that 'complexity for the sake of complexity is pointless, and simplicity to the point of inanity is as bad'. Hard to argue with that.

So here's something you can argue with:

A poem should be a lesson in morality. It should educate the reader about sin, god, and the ways of the wicked. It should not contain profanities unless the poet really wants it to. And it should always be in Swahili.
If you disagree with the above, you're pathetic.
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