I’m a week late posting this poem, which continues the Oxford English Dictionary series and added to the first two for our ‘speed-dating’ workshopping exercise, which was our last session as a group. Unfortunately I only got to workshop with Lee, as I had a to attend a student/staff forum clashing with the last two hours of the session.
Lee’s feedback is helpful and challenging in its directness, and points to an issue at the heart of my practice that I need to come to some reconciliation with: that of ‘obscurity’. One of his comments was, “Maybe there is too much reference to aspects the general reader may not have experienced / have knowledge about.” In this poem, if you don’t get that ‘Samuel T’ is Coleridge, then you may not (and not even then) get that ‘Chinggis’ and ‘Cublai Cham’ are variant spellings of Genghis and Kubla Khan. Might the verse form have helped? Did you notice and recognise it? If you don’t get that ‘Frankie’ refers to Frankie Goes to Hollywood and that their seminal album was called Welcome to the Pleasure Dome then another key aspect of the poem may be closed off to you. If ‘Lamb’ does not bring to mind Charles Lamb (friend, and critic, of Coleridge) then what do you do with that reference? And does it enhance, detract from, or make no difference to your view of the poem if you know that ‘the lantern of typography’ is not my image, but Lamb’s.
I don’t like the idea of explaining every reference and allusion. But in my own reading I’m also very happy for there to be gaps, that I feel are probably gaps in my knowledge, and that I might want to work to fill in. Nevertheless, if the poem doesn’t work on its own terms without external scaffolding, at least at some level, then – well, it just doesn’t work.
Since I was a teenager I have found immense resonance in Eliot’s assertion that “it is a test (a positive test, I do not assert that it is always valid negatively), that genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” I do not expect or wish to write poetry that can always be immediately and simply understood, but of course I do want to write poetry that is ‘genuine’ (as opposed to phoney, pretentious or mere formula) and which, above all, communicates at least something, to at least some people. Sometimes, I think my lack of confidence in my abilities and in what I have to say may hide behind unnecessary obscurity. Sometimes I think a hefty dose of obscurity is necessary because what I have to say is that things are rarely clear. At least to me. In our long fiction seminar last week, we were looking at a short story with a narrator who was generally agreed to be ‘unreliable’. Half-jokingly, I asserted that in fact she was a perfectly reliable narrator: it’s just that the world is unreliable.