Opaque & Obscure Poetry

People have a wide variety of taste in poetry, but the common person’s taste in poetry is usually very different from the taste of self-declared poets and people who love poetry. The common person generally does not like most poetry — and for good reasons.  Much of poetry is opaque and obscure. In this way, when it comes to poetry, I am very much a common person.

As Ted Kooser states, “[Good poetry] keep obstacles between [the poet] and [the reader] to a minimum.”

Here are just some ways many poets build obstacles to make their poetry opaque, obscure:

1. Elusive Allusions: The poet alludes to private experiences or emotions without given the reader enough to understand. Or they may allude to literature, events or such which the average reader knows nothing about.

2. Intellectual Pretense: The writers who use complex vocabulary or very flowery uncommon language.

3. Post-Modern Nonsense: where the poet eschews meaning. Intentionally flooding the poem with incoherent images and vocabulary as if trying to make an aloof philosophical statement.

Testing for Obscurity:
If a reader needs to read the poem more than twice before they feel that they essentially understand the poem, then you can be almost certain you have found an obscure or opaque poem.

Other importance criticism for poetry being unappealing:

  1. Intense Moribund Romanticism: a style popular at one time, but lost on most readers today. (see Gioia, 1991).

Question to reader: Tell us your thoughts about poetry you don’t like, or about obscurity.


  • Can Poetry Matter? — by Dana Gioia, 1991 (a classic essay on the decline of the influence of poetry).


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

3 responses to “Opaque & Obscure Poetry

  1. MNL

    I like poetry but it’s something I grew to like over time. I am fine with poetry that isn’t clear because what happens is the meaning of the poem can change depending on how I am feeling, my own experiences. Part of that is that I don’t think it matters what the writer intended. As a writer it can be disturbing how differently a reader might interpret one of my poems but once a poem leaves the pen, it belongs to the reader and whatever they make of it. It matters what the poem means to you, the reader, now and it’s fine that tomorrow it might mean something completely different.

  2. M.p Writkin

    The other thing is that why does it matter to write to everyone else’s level. Some people understand the esoteric or a viewpoint that is educated. Whats the point in writing for everyone. Some things were meant for people who can understand and not for people who cannot. Some things take an eye while other things do not. And what more it means to the person who can see as the poet sees.

  3. @ Writkin
    Yes, of course it is fine if a writer can write to a very narrow audience.
    (1) A writer can be oblivious to the fact that they are writing to a narrow audience. In which case, this post is a reminder to pay attention to who your expected audience is. This is common-sense advice given in all writing classes.
    (2) I hear poets and poetry-lovers lament that poetry is not more widely read. I think they are forgetting, willingly or unconsciously, the issues I point out in this post.

    @ MNL
    Sorry, I missed this comment from 5 years ago!
    When you are talking with someone, do your words BELONG to the listener. Well, sure, in some sense. But usually in conversation, that is not the intent — the intent is to understand each other. But in novels and poetry, of course, it belongs to the reader — there is no choice. And different authors care differently about what they hope to actually convey — that is a personal choice. This post is just a reminder to some to pay attention to your audience — you may be speaking to a much smaller crowd than you imagine.

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