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?