Suggestiveness and Clarity in Poetry

So, any Tintin fans out there?

While I enjoyed the recent CGI film version, I thought these two images of his face would be a good starting point for this post.

One picture has a lot of detail, one has less, but both convey meaning – the emotion behind the expression. One does it with a handful of lines and some colour, the other with a hell of a lot more of everything. One isn’t worse than the other, but they encourage different levels of engagement in the viewer – something I think is similar in poetry, which is what got me onto the Imagist movement later in the post.

On to poetry.

Like the images above, poems will give or hide detail according to how much work the writer wants the reader to do. Too much work can be a sign of obfuscation, something which has been popular for a long time and no doubt will stay popular, but what interests me for this post, is the tension between 1) having the reader work to gather meaning from a piece and 2) being clear and direct. Clarity is a useful, if not vital measure of the successfulness of communication. But having the reader put in a bit of effort ought to engage them, so shouldn’t a poet be subtle too?

I don’t think most poets want to bludgeon or bore the reader with a shopping lists/bare labelling of events/emotions – which is where embellishments of form and use of poetic devices like imagery, metaphor etc come in handy. But still, it seems that poets and writers want to be clear.

So how far to go toward either extreme, and is the middle itself too safe? Sometimes a ‘delight in devices’ can lead to hideous obfuscation. Conversely, something too direct merely becomes prescriptive and is not actually poetic. When I’m working on some pieces, I worry about bringing those two opposites into a pleasant degree of balance.

Enter the Imagist. As someone who writes both haiku and verse, I can see what they find attractive about using the image as the lynchpin of a poem. Three of their manifesto points always caught my eye:

1.    To use the language of common speech, but to employ the exact word, not the nearly-exact, nor the merely decorative word.

4.    To present an image. We are not a school of painters, but we believe that poetry should render particulars exactly and not deal in vague generalities, however magnificent and sonorous. It is for this reason that we oppose the cosmic poet, who seems to us to shirk the real difficulties of his art.

5.      To produce a poetry that is hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite.

And so the Imagists, according to this, might represent an ‘Absolute-Prescriptive,’ calling for Clarity above all. And clarity is a pretty worthy goal.

However, do these points infer that suggestiveness in a poem (and thus a good chunk of engagement) should only come from the representation of the image? Juxtaposition is a big part of some Imagist poetry, and I’m leaving bits out in regards to the movement’s style, but it reminds me that a powerful image is not always enough to engage me. Which can be why some haiku will make you shrug and maybe think – nice image, but so what?

We often want more as readers, a distinctive style, a twist on common forms, a surprising set of word choices, some bold engagement with new or old subjects etc etc, so I guess my question is, what do you want in your poetry, as either a reader or a writer? How much work do you want/want your reader to do? And how clear is too clear?

7 thoughts on “Suggestiveness and Clarity in Poetry

  1. I want to read poetry that makes me look at ordinary objects, situations, etc, in a different way – brevity and compression of language are key to this. So is metaphor and wordplay, but some poems can spell out meaning and be just as effective. What resonates, I think, is very personal.

  2. I’ve written before that I believe poetry should punch into your head, metaphors should illicit a rapid, almost olfactory like response. However, the image created in the reader’s mind is their own, I don’t believe poets should interpret their own work, a poem is only ever half completed by the poet.

    Obscure poetry can be somewhat pretentious, deliberately driving a barrier between some all knowing poet and his/her reader, and the last thing any poet should do is drive away a reader, I think most people are born metrophobes and it’s our job as poets to bring them back to poetry. If obscurity enters my poetry, which, unintentionally, I’m sure it does, I hope it serves to open up for wider interpretation.

    To close this rather rambling response, after Auden had awarded John Ashbery the Yale Young Poets Award in 1956 he confessed that he didn’t understand a word of Ashbery’s work. People, especially poets fear to express their confusion, but some times they just sound pretty. Look at the studies of ‘Howl’, when, at the end of it all, it was really just a journal entry with a good beat, just Ginsberg talking about his mates.

    • A great description Mark, of the punching, and the idea of ‘half-completed.’ We expect the reader to do the other half, don’t we?

      I have the same fear if I let something too obscure in – and I think a future post ought to re-open up the endless (unsolvable?) question of how to combat the born metrophobe.

      Excellent story about Auden, I hadn’t heard that! And as much as I love Howl, it’s impressive how much mileage the Beats got out of writing about their own social group, huh?

  3. Hi Ash,

    There is a good essay ‘On Lowell, Pound, and Imagism’ at

    which offers an answer to your question, “do these points infer that suggestiveness in a poem (and thus a good chunk of engagement) should only come from the representation of the image?” It’s an essay worth quoting at length from I think:

    “The truth is that “Imagism,” ” Imagist,” refers more to the manner of presentation than to the thing presented. It is a kind of technique rather than a choice of subject. “Imagism” simply means — to quote from the second anthology, ” Some Imagist Poets, 19 16 ” ” a clear presentation of whatever the author wishes to convey. Now he may wish to convey a mood of indecision, in which case the poem should be indecisive; he may wish to bring before his reader the constantly shifting and changing lights over a landscape, or the varying attitudes of mind of a person under strong emotion, then his poem must shift and change to present this clearly.” Imagism is presentation, not representation.””

    Based on my reading I would say that an understanding of Clarity in Imagism depends upon understanding “Pound’s definition of the image as “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time”. Many intellectual and emotional complexes are difficult to understand. For a poet to present a difficult image is not neccessarily an obfuscation, but it could still be a sign of how much work the poet wants (or is willing (for)) the reader to do.


    • Ah – ‘presentation’ rather than ‘representation.’

      And so, does that imply that there only ‘is’ something presented, and nothing beyond the skill of the presenter?

      And I agree, Imagist works seem to be so rarely about obfuscation, and more directness. And the difficult concept/image presented, is often done with both ‘the exact word’ and ‘common language.’ Massive asks, huh? But so wonderful when achieved:

      This Is Just to Say

      I have eaten
      the plums
      that were in
      the icebox

      and which
      you were probably
      for breakfast

      Forgive me
      they were delicious
      so sweet
      and so cold


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