Two factors motivated the theme for this issue. The first was a gut feeling: of being fed up with celebrity. I originally posted the theme as ‘40,733,985 minutes of obscurity’ – that’s how many minutes, on average, a UK citizen will live outside their putative 15 minutes of fame. (Even Warhol tired of hearing his declaration echoed back at him, and parodied it: “In fifteen minutes everybody will be famous.”) I wanted to see a counterpoint to celebrity, through poetry that honours – or simply observes – subjects not demanding our attention.
The other motivation for the theme reflects a prevailing personal interest closer to philosophy than to concerns about celebrity: our position with respect to the unknown. Donald Rumsfeld was ridiculed for saying: “But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” He may be a man who deserves scorn, but his statement was correct. Our ignorance of our ignorance is one of a variety of phenomena at the edges of our being. Rumsfeld’s observation is the stuff of the theory of knowledge, but many of those phenomena are psychological, and especially Freudian. We don’t know (or perceive) what we don’t want to know: the unpalatable facts about which we are in denial; the marginal beings for which we don’t have time.
Wittgenstein’s writing (“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”) demonstrates that philosophical analysis can also be poetic. I wanted to explore the extent to which poetry can do practical philosophy: the extent to which it can prove what we take for granted, don’t know that we don’t know, or cannot see – yet. It is no accident that this issue’s Showcase poet, Tom Duddy, is also a philosopher. His “darkness beneath the rollicking table” (Public House) is a reference to what lurks unknown in an ordinary situation. I think that poetry rubs shoulders with the unknown, as in Duddy’s pub. In good poetry, language is taken to the limits – of what we know and perhaps can know.
I wrote to well-known poets, asking for examples of what I termed ‘the poetry of obscurity’, giving the example of the torturer’s horse in Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts, scratching its behind on a tree while its master (presumably) goes through with his job. I made it plain that it was not ‘obscure poetry’ I was after, but otherwise left open what, exactly, ‘the poetry of obscurity’ might mean. A.B. Jackson wrote back to say that my project made little sense to him:
Rather flummoxed by the question – you mean seemingly inconsequential / banal details which are heightened into a sentimental or symbolic significance by virtue of their appearance in verse? That trick has been played so often, I wouldn’t know where to begin …. In Auden’s poem, the torturer’s horse could be seen as the true star (albeit in a memorable character role) while Icarus is the obscure detail. Both are necessary to the poem, though, so I don’t think it’s possible to imagine a spotlight on one and not the other: you’d be making a value judgement which the poem itself doesn’t recognise.
I certainly hadn’t intended elevation of the banal to “sentimental significance” but this response caused me to stop and reflect. In the poetry I am thinking of, something like the opposite of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle applies. Heisenberg proved that to observe a physical system is necessarily to perturb it. For example, to ‘see’ something is to collect photons bounced off it. If the ‘seen’ is itself something comparable to a photon, then the effect on it will be considerable. But when the poetry of obscurity works, the observed is left in its state of obscurity – intimately visited, but left as it is, and not annexed by the poet. The poem is a strange kind of torch, which reveals something by shining on the subject but which does not affect it. The torturer’s horse is not now a celebrity, but is frozen in the state in which Auden found it. It is Auden’s concept of that horse – his ingenious use of it in the poem – which is famous. Indeed, the subject is often stubbornly resistant to attention in the poetry of obscurity. Philip Gross, in his Presiding Spirits piece for this issue, gives the example of William Carlos Williams’s View of a Lake where there are “three children … immobile in a line / facing the water” – oblivious to, and their faces unseen by, their observer. Much of Philip Gross’s piece is on the extent to which a poem can get at the ‘thing in itself’, a concern that overlaps my subject here.
John Hartley Williams also began by casting doubt on my choice of ‘obscurity’:
‘Worthlessness’ seems a better word than ‘obscurity’. ‘Obscurity’ seems less apt, partly because of its ambiguity (I read it first with the primary meaning of ‘difficult to understand’) but also because in fact the focus of your attention is on what all can see, or could see if they looked, but prefer to ignore. ‘Ignored’, however, is also not a good choice – as for many people the kinds of things you wish to bring into the light are things many people can see very well but wish to suppress from consciousness.
In a city like Berlin, where I live, the town planners are busily at work segregating, demarcating, assigning value to every corner of the urban landscape that might conceivably produce profit. Rural landscapes suffering the blight of intensive agriculture have also become regularised and segmented in the ideological name of production and consumption. Lying forgotten in the interstices between work, cultivation and entertainment are the symbolically and poetically abandoned places where the mind can take refuge from the nauseating compulsion to produce ‘order’.
Robert Frost wrote: “It is a poem just to drive into a strange barn to bide the passing of a thunderstorm.” One wonders where, nowadays, that “strange barn” would present itself. I can remember such barns from my childhood. Owing to the Wall, Berlin is full of abandoned buildings, plots of grass, unused railway lines, bridges, where extraordinary flora and fauna flourish. There are streets that go nowhere, and thousands of ancient, crumbling domestic properties, some with large wilderness gardens. It is extremely satisfying to contemplate them, and look wryly on the huge, fading FOR SALE boards outside. They are places of solace and relief. How long this will last will depend, I suspect, on the longevity of Berlin’s economic decline.
For poems that celebrate ‘worthlessness’, one might well look at William Carlos Williams. The famous red wheelbarrow poem is one such. Also look out for Between Walls. My own poem A Corner of the Garden (from Cornerless People) explores this theme. Thom Gunn’s poem All Do Not All Things Well explores human worthlessness. (When I picked this poem out from the book, he was delighted by my reading of it. It’s from The Man with Night Sweats.) Padraic Fallon’s Duddy’s Wall is a wonderful combining of the theme, as is A Hedge Schoolmaster.
Perceptions of worthlessness seem to me to be only one possible reason for something’s being disregarded, and so where poetry’s ‘strange kind of torch’ may be needed. Like John Hartley Williams, those who responded all found examples that matched – appropriately enough – various corners of what I had intended.
Jane Routh was one of several poets who contributed examples of ordinary or small things given unusual poetic attention, with simple pleasure as the result:
The example of that horse’s backside is a difficult one to follow as that’s off-centre in the poem, as well as in the picture. What comes to my mind are obscure things which are more central to the poem. My first thought was that probably the Buddhist poets would deal in small things, poets like Chase Twitchell for example. But I know Charles Wright’s work better (not a Buddhist, though certainly he reads Buddhist texts). There’s a poem called Gate City Breakdown in The Southern Cross that sticks in my mind as he’s writing about driving round a bend in the road in the last line. That’s all, just wow, wheels around the bend and I remember it, the way the line must carry the feeling of driving it. These are the last 2 couplets:
Jesus, it’s so ridiculous, and full of self-love
The way we remember ourselves,
and the dust we leave…
Remember me as you will, but remember me once
Slide-wheeling round the curves,
letting it out on the other side of the line.
There’s an inbuilt contradiction in the ‘obscurity’ theme really – the writer points to something obscure and there you are: no longer obscure. I was conscious of this in a poem I wrote called Accounts which I’ll quote as well:
Every day, something.
Maybe only a leaf lying on the tarmac…
To have written them all down:
a page for each with a couple of lines,
a drawing, or just a map.
Half a lifetime here, that’s
one hundred and fifty-six A5 notebooks,
one-and-a-half times my bodyweight of words…
From a leaf to a leaf’s surface: Moniza Alvi describes a poet’s ability to explore the tiny and subtle:
The example I particularly love is Edward Thomas’ Tall Nettles. I first read it when I was 15 and it has been engraved on my mind ever since: “I like the dust on the nettles, never lost / Except to prove the sweetness of a shower.” I like the strong atmosphere of the poem, the quiet intensity, and the way you visualise the raindrops on the nettle leaves, but they’re so subtly indicated.
And Julia Casterton finds that poetry’s attention to the unnoticed trains the reader’s sensibility – towards other neglected things we didn’t know we could care about or take pleasure in:
Poems are what enable us to appreciate and enjoy what would otherwise go unnoticed. I don’t think I’d be so aware, or so fond of, things that are of uneven colour if I hadn’t read (so many times I almost know it off by heart) Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Pied Beauty: “for skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow. For roses all in stipple upon trout that swim.” Or so compassionately aware of my own and other people’s feet if I hadn’t read Denise Levertov’s wonderful, long, free-verse poem called Feet in her final, posthumous volume This Great Unknowing. Here’s a short section of it:
Beautiful, too, one’s own feet if they’ve stayed
more or less straight and strong through decades,
and one walks for miles by the sea or through fields and woods
or spends a joyful day in a great museum, arriving
at opening time, staying till closing, grateful to be so upheld.
Poems about tiny, mundane or unnoticed things actually train one’s vision; train the whole sensorium to be more aware of the intricate forces that affect it. They ease us out of the bad habit of the one-track mind, and so can help lift depression, or add a welcome note of melancholy to a manic mood. I think that poets often concentrate on seemingly obscure things because they are doorways to immensity. Robert Lowell said that the doorknob in a country shop could open him up to questions about his own existence. And when we learn to look, really look, listen, taste, smell and hear the ‘little’ things, then we take the first steps towards feeling more alive, more accepting of our place in the material world. As Wordsworth showed when he took his sister Dorothy’s advice and turned to look at the daffodils.
Wordsworth is the focus of Judith Kazantzis, whose topic is more philosophical. I referred above to a poem’s possible annexation of the obscure thing upon which its strange light falls. By that I meant the thing’s becoming pure symbol, rather than something whose existence lies beyond our mental realm – an existence whose independence of us is important to the sense of the poem. Karantzis describes Wordsworth’s difficulty on that point:
I decided to try out the subject of ‘obscurity’ on early Wordsworth, in his day the apostle of the obscure, surely. No, I’m not thinking about unknown cottagers, Lucy, Michael and the rest, with WW’s revolutionary poetic agenda for the new poetic speech and subject matter defended in the famous preface to the second Lyrical Ballads; where Wordsworth suggested his stories of “common people” were as much the matter of poetry as queens, kings and heroes. I don’t think you are suggesting a new social agenda for poetry with ‘the poetry of obscurity’.
However the early Wordsworth may be worth mining. Take The Thorn, that famous or infamous tragic narrative. We find use of the humble thorn tree as a mysterious lead into a ‘village’ tragedy where Wordsworth wants to show how an unknown poor woman’s story could be as moving as – what? – as Lord Ullins’ Fair Daughter. But the story, however ‘humble’, is not to the point.
There is, however, the extremely long description of the thorn tree and also of the rich hill of moss which, understandably, caused ridicule at the time (and still causes it – I heard Joan Bakewell quoting it derisively on Radio 4 in July 2005). It shows WW fascinated, even obsessed, by what in other narrative hands one might think would be got through pretty quickly and skilfully. WW’s obsession with the truly obscure, in your sense, is there in spades (!), in the unnecessarily long and wonderfully eccentric descriptions of that tree and the moss besides it.
In the end however he entwines both into a symbol of the deserted mother and the baby she murdered and buried under the moss, which draws the thorn and the moss out of their obscurity onto centre stage as symbols (a point incidentally that Bakewell and the poets who defended the poem on her programme all missed). The end, then, justifies all that strange build up of the natural stage props and rather spoils my argument for W’s obsession with obscurity on its own account, as above. Still, I find the ultimate ‘symbolisation’ of The Thorn works much less well than the long beginning meditation on the thing in itself, which is what everyone remembers: so perhaps my argument is valid, after all, despite WW’s conscious intention.
The illumination of some “thing in itself” that we normally take for granted may arrive from a radically different place or time. Alison Brackenbury gives the example of an Arabic view of wind and water from nine centuries ago:
The anthology Poems of Arab Andalusia, translated by Cola Franzen and published by City Lights, contains a short poem by the 12th century poet
Abul-Qasim al-Manishi. In Rain over the River, the poet compares the wind to a goldsmith:
crimping water into mesh
for a coat of mail.
Then comes the rain
and rivets the pieces together
with little nails.
The martial opening fades into exquisitely precise observation. Other poets in the anthology use the same comparison, but this is the finest. Its careful sequence opens eyes from a different culture and century: a meeting place. We have no armour, but rain still falls upon water.
And what of the transient? Something unnoticed is in danger of being forgotten, its particulars lost. Michael Symmons Roberts gives examples of poems both as records of the ‘worthless’, with an almost photographic quality, and as ways to disinter our roots:
Derek Mahon’s Disused Shed in Co Wexford is the ultimate example of this. David Jones does it in a different way. In a poem like The Sleeping Lord, he is describing the mythic King asleep unnoticed under the rock and soil of Britain, waiting for the moment when he’ll reawaken and rescue us all. At the same time, for Jones, this delving into the mythic and linguistic roots of these islands is itself an honouring of things forgotten, or on the verge of being forgotten.
In Roy Fisher’s City, the whole sequence is celebrating the obscure, or seeing the ‘unseen’, in an urban context. Lines like “Silver rails that guide pedestrians at street corners stand useless,” and “a curving wall of bluish brick, caked with soot and thirty feet high,” are part of a vivid description of the unexceptional parts of an unexceptional city.
For Anne Rouse, attention to such mundane details evoke her own memories of a place of personal significance:
I’d suggest The Hospital, a poem by Patrick Kavanagh, which begins:
A year ago I fell in love with the functional ward
Of a chest hospital: square cubicles in a row
Plain concrete, wash basins – an art lover’s woe,
and contains the lines:
The main gate that was bent by a heavy lorry,
The seat at the back of a shed that was a suntrap.
Naming these things is the love-act and its pledge;
I felt something similar about a small hospital in Tottenham, now closed, where I worked as a nurse. The dented gate and line of washbasins are transfigured in the poem through Kavanagh’s attachment to a place where he’d found refuge. While the language is typically direct, an awkward phrase or two adds to the impression of shabby utility, and a subject that appeals precisely because it’s so unlikely.
But the obscure is sometimes what we do not want to see, loaded with more negative emotions. Pascale Petit gives an example with a Freudian parallel: of how what we resist can speak most eloquently to us:
I’ve always admired Sharon Olds’ poem The Underlife from The Father. She sees a rat on the subway, like a section of rail detaching itself. Then she goes home and sees an amber lozenge on the sheet’s pattern begin to move and realises it’s a cockroach. She asks them what they want from her as she mourns her father’s death. “…And the / roach and rat turn to me / with that swivelling turn of natural animals, and they / say to me We are not educators, / we come to you from him.”
I’ve stayed in the building where she lives in Manhattan, with a friend on another floor. His apartment has roaches. So I’ve pictured Olds at home and how she could make a poem out of vermin, as she does out of all the minutiae of her life. The way they materialise as static patterns suddenly moving is hallucinatory, and captures the disorientation she might feel after her parent’s death. However often I read it, that dramatic ending, with the rat and roach proclaiming themselves as her father’s messengers is such a chiller.
Jonathan Asser picks up a similar theme, but now with humour:
Priapus by Roddy Lumsden, taken from Roddy Lumsden is Dead, and included in his new and selected, Mischief Night:
Deep in the carpet,
the dust mites, to whom I am God of Virility,
I love the protagonist’s relationship with dust mites in his bedroom carpet. It doesn’t get any better than that. We all need a fan club of some kind.
And Sally Read describes a poet with the ability to apply detailed and objective observation to unusual subjects, including ones that may be taboo:
I take any opportunity to blow the trumpet for an American poet, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, who – to me – very much writes ‘obscure poetry’ in the sense her foci and themes are off the wall, hardly thought of, highly unusual, and, at first glance, small. I love the way she takes something obscure and leads you into something much larger. Her latest collection, The Orchard, is concerned with aggression in nature, dreams, and employs a metaphysical approach to animals and the inanimate. She uses statue imagery a lot – stone angels, lions and satyrs – and explores the line between what lives and what does not, illuminating the living charge inanimate objects have.
The following lines are from The Foreskin:
The little curl was pinkish,
like an overbred white rabbit’s eye, and yellowing white, like the petals
of the magnolia blooms, and a soft blue; and it had a crust of red, for
no one had washed it, those who might have done so unprepared for
the request for it, so they handed it over in its sullied form, which
made it, I thought, more beautiful. …
To me, it takes something obscure and shines a light on it. I hate poems that ‘prettify’, but this poem doesn’t do that: it looks at the subject on its own terms, and explores. It partly comes back to Shelley’s defamiliarisation – a familiar object looked at with fresh eyes. But this isn’t so familiar. And it’s unusual, I think, for a poet to write about the body in such an unsexual and objective way.
Finally, Mario Petrucci celebrates Robert Creeley’s attention to the contingent. We take little notice of most of what happens to cross our visual fields, letting it flit past our information-overloaded brains. What would be there if we froze the frame?
Helsinki Window, written by Robert Creeley and dedicated to Anselm Hollo, was inspired by a simple view that “looked out on the central courtyard of this great sort of apartment block… the garbage bins and whatnot”. Creeley befriended that window, its form reflected in his block-shaped stanzas, each of which was “almost like a sonnet in its determined compacting”. Creeley draws freely on the ‘projective’ Olson, whilst conveying his own distinctively fluid, mesmeric qualities, amplified – as ever – by his unique delivery. Voiced by Creeley, these words acquire in the mind a kind of aural equivalent to the persistence of vision. That simple window, flooded by the shifting moods of Finnish light, in turn flooded his attention and became his “intimate companion and reference, day and night…”, a filter through which Creeley could accommodate and dissect perception via, and in, happenstance. I cite, here, his haunting segment in homage to Robert Frost, its snapshot of what delivers itself up for accidental scrutiny through the glass (or brain/eye?) membrane in all its aleatory and circumstantial strength. Creeley replaces Frost’s snow with a more banal “wet day”, Frost’s anonymous-universal traveller with his own anonymous-universal ‘glass eye’, and Frost’s harness-shaking horse with an assembly of nondescript parked cars. The “small windows” within the window of his poem imitate, I feel, his sense of Frost’s poem within his own and, ultimately, suggests the seamless one-ness which rises up, if we are ready to receive it, through all experience, however unremarkable or humble:
One forty five afternoon red
car parked left hand side
of street no distinguishing
feature still wet day a bicycle
across the way a green door-
way with arched upper window
a backyard edge of back wall
to enclosed alley low down small
windows and two other cars green
and blue parked too and miles
and more miles still to go.
Tim Kindberg writes: we welcome examples from readers and discussion of poetry about the ‘unnoticed, the ignored’ on our online forums here.