June 02, 2003

Bad Poetry

I've never been a big fan of poetry; it's an acquired taste, I think, and perhaps I simply have never taken the time. It may simply be that after so many years of reading and writing technical documentation I value clarity and precision too highly; many poems seem to me to be the literary equivalent of the entries to the annual Obfuscated C competition.

Consequently, I'm not the person to try to distinguish good poetry from bad poetry. But even I can tell when the emperor is naked, and so I found this article both enlightening and entertaining.

Posted by Will Duquette at June 2, 2003 04:38 PM

Deb said:

Actually, I think you will find that poetry, because it is so verbally dense, is more precise than prose. There is less to work with so the poet must choose words much more carefully and layer the meanings exactly to create the poem.

Will Duquette said:

Let's take it as read that we're dealing with poems where the poet isn't purposely trying to be opaque. In that case, there are two aspects to poetry that cause it to be, if not less precise, at least less likely to hit its target.

Or, at least, less likely to hit me.

The first is the very same layering of meaning you mention; the second is depth of literary allusion. These things certainly give a poem depth and richness; they also mean that the poem's meaning is unlikely to be clear at first glance. The poem needs to be pondered, puzzled over, perhaps even decoded to really be understood--and even then (judging by the discussion of "The Emperor of Ice Cream" going on over at Aaron Haspel's place) disagreement is typical. (Of course, perhaps Wallace Stevens wasn't trying to be understood.)

I don't see that it's bad; but it's diametrically opposed to technical prose, which is intended to be understood as quickly as possible.

I speak of good technical prose, mind you. Per Sturgeon's Law, 90% of everything is garbage.

Deb said:

I guess I cannot disagree that technical writing and poetry do not have the same purpose. The first is expository in nature and has no purpose other than the clear transmission of information.

However, I do think that good poetry is not all that hard to understand once you learn the "jargon" that is used. It's the same with any other type of literature. You have to learn the conventions before the meaning comes clear. The problem with poetry is that the compression of meaning makes the conventions less obvious up front and harder to discern without some guidance or teaching. That's why I like Haspel's poetry posts--he's teaching basic reading techniques for a type of writing most folks look at and back away from.

In my humble opinion, of course ;-)

Will Duquette said:

I guess I should emphasize that I'm not criticizing poetry for being poetry; if there's a defect here, it's all on my side. I'm generally not willing to take the time.