Prose from Poetry Magazine

Six Types of Clarity

Looking beyond New Criticism’s ambiguities.

It is an irony of William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguitythat it finds the definition of ambiguity itself somewhat elusive. That title makes it sound like the author already knows what he’s looking for, but Empson figures out what he means by the term as he goes along. In the revised edition, he starts with this: “any verbal nuance, however slight, which gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language.” (The first edition defines ambiguity in the negative, relative to prose.) Already in that phrase “alternative reactions” there is enough room to drive a truck through. Interestingly, though, in laying store by the way real readers respond or could respond, and not by self-contained features of the text, Empson skews toward the empirical, communal, and provisional, and away from the purely analytical. For one of the core books of the New Criticism, this is an out-of-character approach. I wondered briefly why Empson did not do the opposite and identify instances of passages giving no room for alternative reactions, as on the face of it this would seem to allow for more definiteness. When I tried to identify a few such instances, the answer became evident quickly: in order to show the presence of ambiguity under his definition, it is enough to give two or more readings for a passage. In order to show the presence of clarity, you have to supply the reading and show that no other readings exist.

Since this task is practically impossible, clarity seems doomed to be a comparatively wishy-washy concept. Literature has played a trick on us: clarity is murky, and ambiguity is clear. But clarity’s virtues are so taken for granted that the question of how those virtues might be demonstrable seems like it ought to be within reach. Writing regularly earns praise for admitting relatively little latitude of response—though, in poetry’s case, normally not for that quality alone, which a technical service manual could possess. Writing regularly earns praise for “getting out of the way” and affording a relativelyunmediated view of its subject. Considerations of clarity tend to use freighted but inbred sets of words, like “rightness,” “inevitability,” and “aptness.” And accounts of experiencing clarity often have a quasi-mystical turn, describing a sense of simultaneous discernment and ease, an unstrained awareness that, though expanded, does not leave behind the facts of the case. Seamus Heaney writes, apropos of certain passages in Beowulf, that

the keel of the poetry is deeply set in the element of sensation while the mind’s lookout sways metrically and far-sightedly in the element of pure comprehension.

These patterns of testimony persuade me that clarity is real enough to bear some anatomizing—that there might be some middle ground between Heaney’s impression and Empson’s method.


The first type of clarity I want to propose is the clarity of inflected metaphor, or metaphor that provides a directive on its own interpretation. Taken one step further than strictly necessary, such a figure includes not just a tenor and a vehicle, but a suggested manner of comparing the two. This manner-of-comparing (or directive, or inflection) tends to restrict the play, in all senses, of metaphor, and so acts to narrow the range of possible interpretations. Done poorly, the effect is one of hand-holding or hyperextension—this is often the case when one sees a metaphor described as “tortured.” Done well, the effect is one of focused surprise, the poem compensating for depriving you of imaginative say-so by revealing a relationship otherwise obscure. Anne Winters:

                  The city, like a graph
of its own mountainous causes.
          —From“The Key to the City”

If this read, “the city is like a graph,” one could probably get the picture of a skyline, given enough context, and the figure would even have, I think, an austere elegance. Filling in the unstated (“a graph of what?”) would be part of its pleasure. When we are told what the graph is of—causes, that is, factors economic, social, and historical by which this city, including its skyline, came to be what it is—the lines become interestingly reflexive, both more precise and trans-visual. The “mountainous” I am ambivalent about—it is a welcome visualization hint on the one hand, but because the causes of the city are not literally mountainous, the metaphor as a whole is precariously compounded.

A tamer example might be this one by R.S. Thomas, describing snow:

          ermine to trim

our sins with.
           —From “Carol”

The uninflected version of this, “the snow is like ermine,” would border on the banal. But the notion of decorating sin points the figure in a direction that the most scattershot interpretation of “the snow is like ermine” could not have indicated. New questions certainly present themselves—among them, how are we to regard the implied comparison of sinners to royalty? For a moment, though, the relationship between snow and ermine has intense and peculiar specificity. It is difficult to keep this up, and in fact the next lines of the poem (“a brief / sleeve for charity’s / scarecrow to wear its heart / on”) overplay and dissipate the effect.

One more, from Spencer Reece:


a brochure of needs.
           —From “A Bestiary”

The poet is pretending to be a bat in this passage, so there is foremost a physical likeness between “myself” and “a brochure” (one can picture the bat folding itself up in thirds, like a leaflet). Even before the “needs” come into play, the secondary meaning, that the poet pretending to be the bat is also like a brochure, is already very rich. I am like a brochure, conceivably, in being shallow, solicitous, and full of cliches. That the notion of brochure can cover both of these physical and nonphysical interpretations so well is itself an adept ambiguity. The inflection “of needs,” lightly brutal, affects both the man and the bat, and removes further guesswork about what the brochures contain: they are seen to consist of bullet points, so to speak, on the care and feeding of either. There is, they imply, not much else to these creatures.

Empson comments on the contextual nature of ambiguity, and how much it depends on its surroundings for effect; it does not necessarily survive being plucked. I think this is also generally true of clarity, but inflected metaphor, as the types go, is relatively discrete. Scrawled in a notebook somewhere, dormant, it is probably the type most likely to precede the poem it is finally found in.


The second type of clarity follows from the poet’s self-consciousness, as it appears in expressions of frustration with the poem’s procedure or form. Self-consciousness reduces interpretive latitude in the sense of diverting the reader from the performative, rhetorical aspect of the poem to a simplifying awareness of voice, a voice often found to be struggling with confusion or irritated at a convention it cannot freshen by force of ingenuity. Self-consciousness, as a gesture, has a way of shaking the poem out of a rut, and enlisting the reader against the worst instincts of the writer. Tony Hoagland in an essay remarks on self-consciousness in this regard; one of his examples:

                                                     the roses
Had the look of flowers that are looked at.
           —FromBurnt Norton,” by T.S. Eliot

We are simultaneously delivered, in this case, from cliche and the strain of avoiding it. Hoagland doesn’t specifically mention clarity, but part of his point is that self-consciousness is a collaborative cleverness that does not involve outdoing the reader. It is a sort of two-person conspiracy to wrong-foot the poem, and as such it tends to militate against puzzle-like elements, purely stylistic displays, and inertia of argument. In a mopey poem about the decline of Western civilization, the device comes to Derek Mahon’s rescue. He watches “with sanctimonious European eyes . . . drought, famine, genocide” (this was even before 9/11):

Not long from barbarism to decadence, not far
from liberal republic to defoliant empire
and thence to entropy; not long before
the great money scam begins its long decline
to pot-holed roads and unfinished construction sites,
as in the dark ages a few scattered lights—
though it’s only right and proper we set down
that in our time New York was a lot of fun.
           —FromAmerica Deserta”

The whump back to earth in those last two lines summarizes the poem’s attitude to its enterprise in a way I find clarifying, though not easy to paraphrase. It says something like, “I am required, by convention, to take a stance which is at odds, in places, with my experience, and under this circumstance I am not entirely sure what to do.”

Self-consciousness has a deep significance to poets philosophically leery of performance—a sentiment captured by Adrienne Rich’s lines, “The longer I live the more I mistrust / theatricality,” and by Yeats’s figure of the trembling veil. Lynn Keller glosses this anxiousness as articulated in Auden’s “Caliban to the Audience”; the problem seems to be that art cannot articulate a moral vision without somehow domesticating it:

The more effectively art portrays either our condition or the truth from which it is estranged, the more easily the audience complacently mistakes awareness of the gap for the bridge over it. So the artist must wish for some unforeseen mishap that will dir-ect the audience to the original “real-life” drama inspiring the artist. The image Auden develops . . . is that of “the greatest grandest opera rendered by a very provincial touring company indeed.”

When the performance flops, Auden says,

for the first time in our lives we hear, not the sounds which, as born actors, we have hitherto condescended to use as an excellent vehicle for displaying our personalities and looks, but the real Word which is our only raison d’être.

Self-consciousness can also be a way of making the performance momentarily falter, with the aim of momentarily alienating what the performance wants to bring into being.


The third type, emergent clarity, also depends on a simplifying awareness of voice. It occurs when a poem gradually works its way up to an intimacy that recasts the foregoing as a plausible act of communication or address, as opposed to an abstract act of literature. Dependent on establishing a history with the reader, emergent clarity appears by nature in medium-length and longer poems, and one would have to quote a lot to show it start to finish. It is frequently signaled by a slight, presumptuous shift in the tone, and where it does emerge I find that the point where the poem tips over into this more vocative mode is well-localized. Emergent clarity is a common feature of Wordsworth’s The Prelude, as in the “One Christmas-time” passage about the crag where the poet went for solitude around the time his father died (“Some working of the spirit, / some inward agitations thence are brought”), and in “Cambridge and the Alps” (“The types and symbols of Eternity”). Good specimens appear in James McMichael’s “Itinerary” (“I have found that after my devotions”), James Schuyler’s “Hymn to Life” (“Life, I do not understand”), Richard Wilbur’s “Walking to Sleep” (“Let all things storm your thought”), Gwendolyn Brooks’s “The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith” (“At Joe’s Eats / You get your fish or chicken on meat platters”), Vijay Seshadri’s “The Lump” (“at moments like this, here, / in Oregon, I’d made it”), and E.A. Robinson’s “Captain Craig” (“I would have that your last look at me / Be not like this”).

There is something surprising and strange in these poems’ achievements of intimacy, in that they appear in the end to be more than the sum of incremental developments. They are also distinct from narrative resolutions and closing arguments that can produce a similar, crescendo-like effect. There is an exposition of this type of synergy in Dorothy Sayers’s trinitarian theory of artistic creation, in which an artwork is a collaboration between a generative idea (a “father”), a style (a “son”), and some emotive force (a “ghost”). Most artists, having personalities, favor one leg or another of the arrangement, and so their creations are systematically out of whack, or “scalene.” Sayers associates the scaleneness with a certain diffuseness and, correspondingly, the equilateral moments with clarity:

Many writers whose work is in general lop-sided and unsatisfactory will every so often achieve a stray poem or isolated phrase in which everything that was dim and scattered seems to come suddenly into focus, and which stands out from all their other performance with a unique brilliance and “rightness,” like the image in a stereoscope at the moment of perfect superimposition. These, I fancy, are the moments when the writer’s trinity has temporarily adjusted itself—when, for once, Idea, Energy and Power are consubstantial and coequal. The effect, when it does occur, is so dramatic that we may find it hard to believe that we are still dealing with the same writer.

Sayers is describing here an extreme, but a gradualist version of this process may be pertinent to emergent clarity, where the writer’s point, form, and feeling arrive at some triangulation of reality through rounds of adjustment and readjustment. Sayers’s picture of equilateral focus applies potentially to any good poem; its particular relevance to emergent clarity is the incremental process with which that focus, in this type, is achieved.


The fourth type is the clarity of indigenous conceit. By “indigenous” here I mean plausibly native to the writer’s experience, and not fashioned out of an imaginative recombination of literature or pickings from various bodies of knowledge. This condition is violated these days in all sorts of ways, commonly with a kind of idolatrous scientific metaphor (“endorphins,” “type a,” etc.) or tropes borrowed from other media:

Like the sound of eyebrows
Raised by a villain
In a silent movie.
           —From“The Wooden Toy,”by Charles Simic

This is good in its way, but I maintain it is of a different order from this example, in which the nineteenth-century Swahili poet Sayyid Abdallah adjures his wayward self to righteousness:

                                                   Imagine lives
As lanterns in the wind, whose flames may gutter,
But once extinguished are no more, however
   They once did shine;

You have watched the brushfires walk across
The dry savannah, blazing in the thickets,
And you have seen the clouds descend and wash
   The embers cold
           —Fromthe Inkishafi

Indigenous conceit commonly touches the natural world, where chains of reference and symbolism hit bedrock (in the Inkishafi there is a pronounced contrast between the passages of devotional boilerplate and these moments when reality appears). Although the indigenous conceit may constitute a sort of convention, it isn’t constituted of one. Its clarity lies in this groundedness, this inability to mean more than what is stated, rather than in a strength of correspondence between tenor and vehicle. In this sense the reader’s experience is a relatively minor factor in the figure’s appreciation, and one need not have seen a wildfire in the bush to glean the power of the warning. Further, the fact that the vehicle is in some sense real entices the poet to continue specifying it past the point of relevance to the metaphor, yielding the superfluous quality of Homeric simile. This sandboxed quality permits the addition of matter without the introduction of ambiguity, and a splendid effect can arise, as it does in some passages in the Inkishafi, of simultaneous sobriety and promiscuous wonderment.

The historical vitality of this type is remarkable (whenever I see a construction like “As when . . . ” in a translation of something old, I sense an opportunity to reorient myself), and I think this type accounts in some part for the popularity of, say, the Paolo and Francesca canto of the Inferno, where the eternal hurricane buffets the souls of those who have sinned by excess of passion—classified, according to their flight patterns, as starlings, cranes, or doves. The type’s use has subsided in the modern era, perhaps for reasons related to the same diminished sense of the sublime that has attended the subsidence of the epic. There is also the brute statistical fact that as more literary stuff accumulates and the possibilities of recombination multiply, indigenous conceit must inevitably seem rarer in relative terms.


The fifth type is a sort of generalized onomatopoeia, in which punctuation, sound, and syntax mime some action over time. The action may be stated or implied, but is in either case transparent. This type has ancestry in children’s literature and nonsense. Here is Beatrix Potter, describing the action of a rolling pin on a kitten pudding:

roly-poly, roly; roly, poly, roly

This is hardly language at all, and perhaps for that reason there is no latitude in its interpretation. More precision would not be possible in ten times the space, if the author availed herself of the entire oed.

The connection of clarity to nonsense sounds odd at first blush, since in nonsense there would appear to be nothing to be clear about. But this is not quite true. When denotative sense is missing, interpretation falls back on whatever is left—principally on syntax. The fewer potential avenues there are for meaning, the more difficult it is for ambiguity to appear. When Ogden Nash says, “The dorlim slinks undeceded in the grost,” there is no gain saying where the dorlim slinks. In generalized onomatopoeia, denotative sense is present, but pegged to the underlying mimesis:

Strong gongs groaning as the guns boom far,
Don John of Austria is going to the war.
          —From“Lepanto,” by G.K. Chesterton

Back through groves
Back through garlands
Back by rivers
Back below mountains
         —From“Train Tune,” by Louise Bogan

This device tends to relieve its poem of a layer of rhetorical strain—the little voice behind the text perpetually stuttering, “Let me explain what I am trying to say,” is given a rest. It is important to clarify that generalized onomatopoeia does not do what it does by invoking a preexisting relationship between the poem’s sound and elicited response (such a relationship would amount to imitation theory, which so exasperated critics like John Crowe Ransom). To take Bogan’s poem, the relation between the repetition and meter on the one hand, and the rhythm of train travel on the other, is literal but not affective. The sounds used to evoke the rhythm of train travel are not intrinsically keyed to nostalgia or remembrance—that association is the poet’s contribution—and in another poem the same device might have a different emotional coloring.

The aural effects involved in this type of clarity are often crude, though the more accessible for that—it is still sometimes startling to me to see how quickly someone otherwise indifferent to poetry will take to a poem like Poe’s “The Bells.” But this type can be delicate as well. Gwendolyn Brooks again:

And even and intrepid come
The tender boots of night to home.
           —“The Sundays of Satin Legs Smith”

And Derek Walcott’s “A Sea-Chantey”:

The amen of calm waters,
The amen of calm waters,
The amen of calm waters.


The last type of clarity arises when one of the poem’s formal devices, commonly meter, synchronizes with a naturally occurring feature of the language, potentially something as simple as a conversational inflection, an interjection, or a naturalistic trope like anacoluthon (“Maybe I should—I don’t know what to do”). If you accept the analogy of language to landscape and form to architecture, this type of clarity is a felicitous harmony between a feature of the topography and a feature of the design. Alternatively, if form is an abstract imposition on a pile of language, then this type occurs when the language seems to have fulfilled its formal requirements before the pattern arrives. Accordingly, one could call the type concretion of form. Concretion of form in some baseline, degenerate sense is implied by the commonplace of praise that a given use of form is natural-sounding. But I mean to indicate here something slightly more dramatic—something that Wordsworth, for example, does not generally show—where an irregularity in the language crops up that would seem to present challenges to the form but instead validates it. Here is the idea, from Brooks (yet again):

Ah, there is little hope. You might as well—
Unless you care to set the world a-boil.

The poem has no right to be so metrically fluid across the interruption of the thought, but it is. One senses with instances of this type that the flow of structural imposition reverses, and it seems as though the form got its idea, so to speak, from the living language. An example from Robert Frost:

son. We think they had a grave down in the cellar.

mother. We know they had a grave down in the cellar.
          —From“The Witch of Coös”

These lines are easy to skip visually, but consistently arrest me when read aloud. In a 1961 recording of this poem (in which “had” is “have”), Frost seems to take particular delight in them, sort of vocally italicizing “know.” My mind invariably wanders just before this point but snaps back at the coincidence of the verse with the dramatic emphasis: the meter makes the mother’s point, and the mother, in making the point, would have made the meter anyway.

The type may turn on a different formal element—rhyme, for instance, in George Herbert’s “The Thanksgiving”:

Then for thy passion—I will do for that—
           Alas, my God, I know not what.

This could be read, too, as a moment of self-consciousness from a poet despairing of the expectations raised by the first line of the couplet. There is a kinship between self-consciousness and concretion of form, but they part ways in the resolution: here, Herbert’s shrug does not prevent him from fulfilling the formal terms of the poem. He throws the basketball backwards over his head and it goes through the hoop anyway.

* * *

Empson feels it necessary to point out at the end of his book that the ambiguities he has been cataloging seem to him beautiful—as opposed, presumably, to frustrating and obscure. Similarly I should say that these types of clarity all seem creditable (I think concretion of form is my favorite kind), as opposed to prosaic lapses where the fluorescent lights come on. As studies, though, they are of their place and difficult to profit from directly. As Empson says of ambiguity, it “is not satisfying in itself, nor is it, considered as a device on its own, a thing to be attempted.” It would seem that clarity also appears as a by-product of a hands-on, felt-through negotiation of various requirements at the point of composition, or what are usually called problems of craft. The encouraging implication of this is that clarity is a property of poems, not of poets—that is, the lucidity of writers’ minds does not magically teleport onto the page. Clarity, at least these types of it, is amenable to work.

Originally Published: January 3rd, 2011

Poet, critic, and editor D.H. Tracy earned an MFA at Boston University. In his formally engaged poems, often infused with sly humor, he explores themes of intimacy, perception, and loss. His debut poetry collection, Janet’s Cottage (2012), won a New Criterion Poetry Prize, and his work is featured in The...

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  1. January 7, 2011
     Daniel D'Arezzo

    The lines that D. H. Tracy quotes from Anne Winters' "The Key to the City" may be taken more literally than he imagines. I recall an essay in The New Yorker (I believe it was written by John McPhee) about how the underlying geology of Manhattan is visible in the skyline: basalt downtown and above 34th Street provides the stable foundation for skyscrapers that a "saddle" of looser rock in Greenwich Village, Murray Hill and Chelsea cannot provide. The geology of Manhattan may be the "mountainous causes" to which the poet refers.

  2. February 1, 2011
     R. A. Davis

    Tracy's piece doesn't replace Empson's, but rather presents a "what if?"--the "if" being Empson rolling the other way and, after dallying with a partner, had disengaged and gotten out on the "other" side of the bed. Only two things kept me from tossing my Empson against the opposite wall. One, he does a thorough--sometimes tedious--job of showing us how many ways a poem can convey meaning. Two, he occasionally slips in a comment suggesting he's not taking all this seriously. But being British, these "fnords" are always cloaked in, well, ambiguity. Tracy necessarily skates on thin ice--the idea that a poet can "force" clarity on readers, like a magician does when doing card tricks, is moot. But I don't fault him for that. The most fortuitous result for poetry would be Empson and Tracy bound in one volume. Everybody wins. Biggest problem would be coming up with a title neither clear nor ambiguous.