On Poetry

On Complexity: Marge Piercy

Since for me poems are primarily artifacts created out of sounds and silences, I respect the ability to make the surface of a poem appear simple and clear. The hardest poems to write are those that look as if they had written themselves, effortlessly, like water gliding into a basin—poems that appear transparent.

There is a poem of Lucille Clifton's, "Miss Rosie," that I have often used with workshops to demonstrate how much art exists in a poem as apparently simple as that one. We look at the rhythms, the repetitions, the line breaks and line lengths. Nothing in the poem calls attention to the techniques used to create it. Instead it appears, as I said, transparent ­ until you look carefully and critically.

I believe you can get away with a fair amount of complexity and still have the poem resonate with the listener or the reader, if the poem remains emotionally coherent, if the arc of the poem is clear. The listener or reader may not grasp the poem in its intricacies, but they will have a direct knowledge of it, an understanding that is emotional and tactile rather than intellectual, although the intellect may also be seduced into involvement.

Any piece of writing is a seduction. You want the reader to read your particular work and not the one before it in the zine and not the one after it ­ at least not until the reader has absorbed yours. You use your title to grab attention and you entice the reader in and down the page. If her or his attention wanders, you have lost. After all, if we were only pleasing ourselves, we would not bother with sending poems out and risking rejection or even insult. We would write poems, enjoy them and then erase them. Indeed, there are many people who write poems without letting anyone else ever see them. However, I am assuming that anyone reading this journal does at least intend to send work out into the harsh light of the world.

Indeed, once the poem is finished and published, it no longer belongs to you. People will experience it in marvelously inefficient and fabulous ways ­ making it mean to them what you never imagined, using it in ways that you are not sure you find comfortable. So what? It now belongs to anybody who likes it, just as an over-friendly dog will go home with any passerby who speaks kindly or whistles. They will tack it up on the bathroom, put it on the refrigerator, paste it beside their computer. They will use it in wedding ceremonies, in funerals, to get into bed with someone, to break off a relationship, to accompany a gift, to apologize, to confront. They will use your poems in classes, in rallies, in nursing homes and with sick children ­ so long as you have given them words that are memorable in rhythms that work on the brain, something they can say and mean ­ even if they cannot say exactly what it means, since a poem doesn't mean something exactly.

Sometimes when students call me up or send me emails that ask, what does this poem mean? I despair. I say it means what it says, what it says in words, in sounds, in rhythms, in silences, in images. That's what it means.

To me whether a poem is dense or sparse, syntactically complicated or simple as a child's primer, imagistic or bare, depends on the poem itself and what it needs and demands of the writer in order to become embodied in those sounds and silences, those bytes of communication, those evocative wispy associations that provoke so much of the resonance of a poem, those rhythms and those images that demand our assent in the instant when unlike things are yoked in the mind and we find the sameness in difference.

Some poems proceed logically as a proof; some go from step to next step like an algorithm; some leap like deer through their underbrush; some move like dreams with disparate image melting into wild acrobatic surges of the strange and the mundane. Each poem teaches you the right way to create it as you go ­ that is, when you succeed. All workshops can teach anybody is the questions to ask when a poem does not work ­ what the variables are and how to use them. Often in workshops, poems are obscure because the writer was afraid to find out what she or he wanted to work with, not because there is any great complexity in what the poem wants to be. Then I have the sense of a poem under the quasi-poem, something unwritten underlying the thing that has been put down, distorting it.

Some things cannot be gotten at straight on. Poems about what is holy or otherwise ineffable proceed best by indirection. On the other hand, writing liturgy demands a discipline in which the self is almost erased and every image is checked to make sure it will work for group recitation.

I will always try to make the poem as clear as it can be, which is sometimes quite murky and quite dense. It depends on the poem and what it needs to be.

Originally published in Crossroads, Spring 2000.

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