Obstructive Mystery in Poetry

See my other posts about Poetry here

Below is a quote of Billy Collins, Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003, when he was interview by the Paris review in the Fall of 2001.

A common problem I find with much poetry is when the poet is attempting to be mysterious, as if being mysterious is a prerequisite for poetry.  In the same way, many poets feel that capitalizing lines in their stanzas, or leaving off definite articles, or using flowery language, or making obscure academic allusions, or using difficult vocabulary may be a qualifier for good poetry.

Another poet laureate and favorite poet of mine is Ted Kooser who, in his The Poetry Home Repair Manual, said “I favor poems that keep the obstacles between you and [the reader] to a minimum “.  And so, with that in mind, below is Billy Collins addressing how mystery in poetry can be an obstruction to its readers.

I feel there’s a time to be clear and a time to be mysterious in a poem. Poems that fail for me are often poems in which the poet is being mysterious about something that should be clear, or simplifying something that should be left mysterious. It’s a matter of knowing what cards should be turned over and what cards should be kept face down. Poems that turn too many cards over don’t respect the mysteriousness of life, and poems that turn over no cards are a game not really worth playing. My advice to poets is: Turn more cards over, or, Don’t turn so many cards over. I don’t want to know about that. I don’t want to see that card. If you’ve written a poem about your brother who is in the hospital undergoing surgery, well, tell us that. Why should that be a secret? Tell us the circumstances of the poem. But how you feel about this brother you’ve always felt competitive with, angry with, how you feel about him being close to death now—should remain mysterious. You can’t do that justice in twenty lines.

Let me describe a typical scenario in a workshop where a poem gets passed around the table. Everyone has a copy of the poem; the poet reads it, and there’s a polite silence. Then someone says, Well, it’s an interesting title. More silence. Someone says, That ending’s weird. Anyway, ten minutes later we conclude that no one knows what’s going on. No one has a clue, right? So you turn to the poet for help, and she says, Well, I wrote this poem when my brother was in the hospital undergoing surgery. All of a sudden the poem becomes seventy-three percent clearer. She kept that a secret. She wanted to make that mysterious. That shouldn’t be a mystery! Call the poem “Poem Written in the Hours When My Brother Was Undergoing Surgery,” and then tell us what’s going on. How you feel about your brother can be couched in imagery, fraught with uncertainty. You must remain ambivalent about such matters.

It’s like in shopping malls you have that arrow that says, You are here. The beginning of the poem should at least give you that kind of information. The romantic lyrics are so good about that because the poet always starts off by telling you where he is. You know, I’m sitting in my backyard in a lime-tree bower, or, I’m sitting up on a hill, or, I’m lying in a field, or, I’m three miles above Tintern Abbey. Location. The poem always starts with a geographical grounding wire, then moves off into areas of amazing speculation and fanciful imaginative realms.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

4 responses to “Obstructive Mystery in Poetry

  1. Just Barry

    I’m glad I read this. Thank you for sharing.

  2. well written and helpful

  3. Thank you Maureen and Barry. But unlike poetry blogs, we appreciates comments here that are interactive, critical, questioning or such. So next time, please tell us your thoughts.

  4. phoenicianbard

    I can’t stand either of the two poets’ work whom you mentioned, but I do agree with Billy that there is a time to be mysterious and a time not be — absolutely. That’s just good storytelling decision-making, in my book. Each poem needs to tell a story, so finding that balance is key to success.

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