Kevin Prufer on Sentimentality and Complexity
Here's a taste from the complexity section. Make the jump to read his thoughts on sentimentality, and more.
Today, I was sitting in Waldo’s Coffee Shop down the road talking to one of my graduate students. She’s very smart. Beyond that, she has an extremely fine ear for musical language and a sharp eye for creating startling images and unexpected metaphors. In short, she is a talented and engaging poet. But today, I could not figure out what her poem was doing. Although every moment in the poem was lovely—the experience of reading it was like watching fireworks explode all around me—in the end, I was unsatisfied, as if the poem were gesturing at ideas or images without actually creating thoughts or scenes.
“What are you talking about here?” I asked her at last, “I mean, could you fill me in on how you see this poem working?” She quickly sketched out the narrative lurking behind all the lovely moments, explained to me who the speaker was, who she was addressing, described something of the poem’s context. Although I’d admired the turns of phrase in the poem from the very beginning, my appreciation for the poem was greatly deepened by her explanation. “Is there a way you could communicate some of this in the poem?” I asked her.
“Well,” she said, “I didn’t want it to be too direct.”
“What’s wrong with being direct?” I asked her.
“You mean, I should just provide the narrative? Add narrative?”
I shrugged. “It would help the poem to do what it sounds like you want the poem to do,” I said. “It would help the poem communicate.”
“But, wouldn’t that be sentimental?”
And it was here that it occurred to me—not for the first time!—that the way we teach poetry in our schools—the way I was taught poetry in high school!—is deeply fucked up. I remember learning that a poem was like a puzzle. If I could just sort out what each element in the poem symbolized—the window, the fly, the keepsakes, the light—then I could put them together and voila! solve the poem! Or, put another way, I’d been taught to think of poetry as a kind of coded language, a medium in which writers resisted communicating with readers. Poetry, I’d learned, is a kind of really hard crossword puzzle, but with a meaning at the end.
Of course, this is not so. Poetry is not a secret code or puzzle. Poetry, at its finest, can be a way we communicate complex, often competing (sometimes downright contradictory) ideas—the way we communicate to ourselves and those not-yet-born our sense of the universe we inhabit, the troubles we face, our joys and passions and hypocrisies and frustrations and perplexing double-mindedness. A poem may be ambiguous and it may be difficult, but ambiguity and difficulty are not the ideal ends of a poem. They are effects of the complexity of a poem’s situation and context. Put another way, most great poems I know—even the most difficult, elusive poems!—communicate as directly as they can, given the emotional (or theoretical, or philosophical, or theological, or etc.) complexity of the poem’s subject and, perhaps, speaker.