Secret poems, obscure poems

Some months ago I wrote about Neil Pattison’s “Preferences” collection and commented on his reference to Steven Malkmus in ‘Spoils’. Neil and I then had some correspondence and Neil indicated that he thought this reference was secretive rather than obscure. I now know what the ‘secret’ is and it’s safe to say that no amount of digging around in Pavement lyric sheets is going to reveal it but this exchange did set off a train of thought that I haven’t been able to get rid of.

Most good poetry gets charged with the sin of obscurity and this usually means the use of allusion or direct references to out-of-the way bits of information and this is supposed to be a Bad Thing. Hill is frequently accused of this and his response is that he doesn’t want to insult the intelligence of his readers. References to Bradwardine and Gabriel Marcel may not be part of mainstream liberal knowledge but they are clearly signposted and any reader is able to follow these through. The reference to the ‘grinning cake’ in Comus is not signposted in any way and is therefore secret to Hill even though Tom Day has made a brave stab at interpretation.

Then there’s extreme obscurity which is where the knowledge exists in the public domain but readers are not given a clue where to begin. John Wilkinson has recently pointed out in Glossator that Prynne’s use of “rap her to bank” in ‘Word Order’ is a quote from a coal miners’s song yet this isn’t indicated as an allusion or reference in the poem. The relevant section reads-

Would you take a chance on it
or take a cut, in the cavity
rap her to bank:nothing

This is certainly obscure but is it secretive? It could be argued that the phrase is distinctive enough to be read as a quote and that readers with a knowledge of miner’s songs would recognise it. on the other hand, for the rest of us, the meaning will remain hidden.

Then there’s wilful obscurity. Ezra Pound prompted Eliot to change the epigraph from Conrad’s “The horror!” quote in ‘Heart of Darkness” to a quote from ‘The Satyricon’ (In Latin and Greek) on the grounds that “I doubt if Conrad is weighty enough to stand the citation” even though Eliot found it to be “elucidative”.

Now we come to secrecy which may occur in a number of ways. I’m defining secrecy as something that the poet writes but does not intend to be ‘discovered’. I read something recently about Celan that said that a particular poem only makes sense if you know what Celan did on a visit to a city and what he saw there. Celan has also famously described his poems as ‘a message in a bottle’ which can only be fully grasped by those who ‘find’ them.

In Pattison’s case, I’m in a privileged position because I’m now ‘in’ on the nature of the secret but I still have to ask why it was inserted in the first place in a poem that was published. I like to think of myself as being an attentive reader and would probably worked my way through Pavement lyrics till I found the reference, looked at it in context and ended up none the wiser or have extrapolated ‘meaning’ that wasn’t actually there. It could be argued of course that the secret is an integral part of the poem and that it ‘fits’ with one or more of the themes but in order to make a judgement on that you need to know that it’s a secret.

So, the poet flags up an image or a piece of information and then (by not elaborating) withdraws it from sight. It could be argued that Prynne does this too- the above reference isn’t signalled by quotation marks nor is it long enough for the rest of us (if we know that it’s a quote) to follow through. Perhaps I should have found the Pavement quote and extrapolated from there thus making a meaning that wasn’t intended, perhaps that’s what secrecy/withdrawal is about.


6 responses to “Secret poems, obscure poems

  1. As with other devices or features of poetry, I’m not sure it’s possible to catalog all variations. There’s another kind of secrecy or illusion, for example, which is very common in even ordinary fiction — we could call it the “insider effect”. Suppose I’m writing a story set around San Francisco (where I live), and I write, “Afterwards we took the kids to Fenton’s”. Now Fenton’s happens to be a real place, with a history, and another Bay Area resident would recognize it, but the reference achieves an effect of verisimilitude which doesn’t rely on the reality. I could just as well have called it “Minton’s”; either way, the effect is quite different from “Afterwards we took the kids for ice cream”.
    I find that when I pick up overt references in poetry, but I don’t understand them, that they give an effect of depth, similar to the illusion such veristic references give in fiction; a hint that there’s a “there there”, a mind, a person, a history behind the verbal forms.

    • Okay, the insider effect isn’t really that exclusive though. Suppose I’ve got your story and you’ve put your name to it (granted, not a run of the mill name). I then put your name (and use an additional tag or two if it’s more common) into Google and work out that you’re based in San Francisco. I then put in ‘Fenton’s San Francisco’ and find myself on their home page with lots of pictures so I can contextualise what you are talking about. So I think the insider effect worked until about 1998 or whenever search engines became useful. I think insider does is more effective if it doesn’t have proper nouns- if I were to write “and we’ll never know” this would be a reference to something Stanley Fish once wrote about an obscure bit of Milton but it would only mean anything to me and those few (the insiders) that I’ve discussed it with.
      I think the ‘effect of depth’ is really interesting because I think it cuts two ways. A poem can appear deep but actually be fairly empty (The Four Quartets) or be more complex than the original reference would suggest (Prynne’s “grow up to main” and Matthias’ “do the bloody ships”). Both of these only hint at the actual depth and both took me ages to get to the bottom of- I’m still working on the Matthias.

      • It’s quite true that veristic references are more easily deciphered than in the past — but for fiction at least, the decipherment wasn’t generally the point. While the reference to Fenton’s looks like an appeal to an interlocutor who also knows the place, that interlocutor is as fictitious as the narrator or the characters. As Eagleton (?) puts it somewhere, when a piece of fiction contains sentence S, we are always implicitly being prompted, “Imagine a narrator who says S to a listener”; “imagine what would move this narrator to say S to the listener that has been suggested so far”, etc.

        None of this is to disagree with you — it’s a roundabout way of approaching what Pattison might have been doing with that Malkmus reference. It meant something to Pattison, sure; but I expect he put it in the poem in the hope that it would work for the reader as well. And my point is that the way P expected it to work need not have been through decipherment — that indecipherability is not necessarily obscurity.

        I really should write that thing about Kim’s Povel, which explicitly turns the techniques of innovative poetry to narrative in the mode of memoir.

      • I think I was trying (in some inept way) to work out the difference between the obscure and the indecipherable. I think I’m also interested in the motivation for placing the secret (or the withheld) inside a published poem.
        I wasn’t going to mention Povel but ‘that thing’ would be very welcome.

  2. “I recall with perfect ease the idea in which The Awkward Age had its origin, but repreusal gives me pause in respect to naming it. This composition, as it stands, makes, to my vision — and will have made perhaps still more to that of its readers — so considerable a mass beside the germ sunk in it and still possibly indistinguishable, that I am half-moved to leave my small secret undivulged.” Henry James, ‘Preface’ to The Awkward Age.

    • Very good, I note that he’s only half-moved to leave the ‘germ’ as a secret. The Malkmus reference in Pattisons poem is not sunk into the rest of the poem but stands out as the only direct (but false) allusion.

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