Monday, 12 August 2019

Failing our readers

Over at the HappenStance Press blog, Helena Nelson has just published her twice-yearly summary of current trends in poetic tics. In my view, the last one on her list is perhaps the most important...

The single most common problem: unintended obscurity. The poem is behaving as though it's obvious what's going on but the reader is mystified. This is quite different from deliberate obscurity, which can be compelling.

It's the most important because it means the poet in question has failed their readers at a specific point, thus losing them for the rest of the poem. Moreover, we're all prone to it. There are inevitable occasions in everyday life when we're convinced we've been clear and unambiguous, only for everyone to tell us they haven't got a clue what we're on about or to misinterpret our words with grim or hilarious consequences.

Exactly the same is true of our poems. Except that nobody's around when we write them and fall in love with them. Nobody's present to disentangle our unintentional semantic and syntactic knots. And that's where friends kick in, the best kind of friends, the friends we take into our confidence with dodgy first drafts, the friends who let us know us when we're making one of the biggest poetic mistakes around, that of failing our readers.

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