Eschew obfuscation! Because the goal of writing is to communicate. To be understood.
If I meant to say I just saw a cat fly past, anyone hearing should know I meant a cat. A cat, not a felid catus!
So ‘writer and grammar geeks’ will always tell us in order “to explain the need to write clearly.”
[Tweet “I cannot “espouse” “clear” writing in poetry”]
Hear me out!
But Poetry Is Writing, Too
Absolutely! And poetry ought to be understood! It’s why I placed “clear” in quotes.
“Clear” in writing, speaking, and composing is the same. It means “be simple.” Simple.
Appealing to writers to copy Ernest Hemingway, Brian Clark said “clear writing” is effective writing, and it uses short sentences, shorter paragraphs, vigorous English, and is positive.
You enjoy Hemingway, right?
I try to do all those in my poems. In my writing.
But I want you to know, while reading or hearing the poems in Unfortunate Oyibo, that this “clear” is a little different in poetry. Or should I say my poetry? Really, not my poetry! I imitated Robert Frost quite a lot, before I got my own poetic voice.
Clear and Obfuscation Compatible
Clear in poetry should be on the surface. Only. That is, the text or lyric should be “very clear.” On that surface. Clear enough to be understood. Every word for it. If that surface will do.
Then a surprise.
Like the prophets of old did, there has to be something, even one little thing inside a poem that goes inside the reader (or hearer) and begins to worry them. That little thing says something like, “are you sure he meant just that?”
Are you sure the cat he means is not that old witch every neighborhood in the world seems to have?
Actually, I haven’t seen any old witch in my neighborhood yet! Believe me!
See my point? This lingering feeling toward an other meaning than the one implied on the surface is only possible if the poet obfuscates.
It’s deliberate. But it’s not made obvious.
It’s exactly what Frost meant in saying, “it begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” Then the poem becomes “clear.” From clear to clear. Clearer!
So, obfuscation and “effective writing,” clear are compatible.
Here’s an Example (toggle to open poem):
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That firefly of yesterday’s—
really, what could it mean?
Was that really its glow I still
could see or was it a dream?
For after I struck it with the broom
against the white ceiling deck
of my bedroom where I resolved
a firefly an awkward pick—
for we’re used to seeing them at night
glimmering in the grass
across the field as far as the eyes
can see like fallen stars—
not in a bedroom—my bedroom—
but where I left it lying
on the marble floor, I returned
and found its glow undying.
Steady, albeit a little dimmer,
but steady, undying.
After over 40 minutes away—
there it lay undying!
I’d gone downstairs to chat to Big Swish.
We talked about evolving
Nigerian Music and how we can
make it a true loving.
I returned, 40 minutes later
and found the glow undying;
from the trash where I dumped it and
went to sleep, it lay undying!
This “Undying” poem, among 59 others, are in my Unfortunate Oyibo book.
What could the poet or speaker in “Undying” possibly mean? It may not be I. And I don’t have to tell you. Because this isn’t religion. It’s poetry. I’m not asking you to believe. I’m asking you to make it clear for yourself and have fun doing so.
But I especially do it to make the poem stay fresh. As fresh as a… “Read it a hundred times: it will forever keep its freshness as a petal keeps its fragrance. It can never lose its sense of a meaning that once unfolded by surprise as it went.”
So now you know that a poem can be clear as well as “unclear.” You know, as a piece of writing it should be simple and effective. You know why it should imply something and mean possibly another. To keep fresh.
Still, I should make it practical for you.
How Do I Use “Hints and Indirections?”
Hints and indirections. I’m saying one thing. Hints. Indirections. Obfuscation. I think I heard (read) “hints and indirections” from Frost. Not sure I remember where.
But this is how I do it, in case it helps you learn how.
Do you enjoy penalties? In football (soccer)? The odds of scoring are always 99.99%, right? Why?
Well, if you love football you know the answer. The player (sorry, scorer) will always feign! I’m horrible at football, horrible at talking about it, but I enjoy it when I can watch it. Still, here’s how it applies to making poetry keep fresh.
Step #1: Begin with the End in Mind
But pretend you don’t know how it will end. Let “the poem ride on its own melting.” As if it writes itself.
The shooter at penalty knows where to place the shot. But then he doesn’t let any body member give it away to the goalkeeper. Or you know what would happen.
For me, I’m on a journey to reveal truths. So I’ll hold one truth in mind, then look for a “clever” way to express it. It will make sense on the surface. Then I begin to compose words around it until that end.
The result is what Frost called “surprise for the writer, surprise for the reader.” You didn’t quite see it coming. And it makes you keep coming back.
[Tweet “In poetry, no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”]
Step #2: Pick Your Symbols
The symbol(s) you choose should be common. Easy to come to terms with by your people. Everyday object. Everyday things. Like cats, you know.
Step #3: Choose Matching Words
Poetry is a delicate art. Or it’s the delicatest of the arts. In this step, you want to pick words that relate to your symbol(s) as closely as possible.
Let your words not distract. Too much. But let them only hint at that end, that revelation, that “clarification” you have in mind.
Step #4: Flow, Don’t Force
If a writing teacher were to tell you this, she would say, “just shoot. Produce the ugly first draft.” First. Edit later.
Robert Frost puts it quite nicely.
Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting. A poem may be worked over once it is in being, but may not be worried into being.
So, just flow. First. Then go back and check if your aim has been achieved. Have I implied something about my symbol(s)? Are these symbols well-written about? Is the tone okay? Does any word distract, both in meaning and sound? Is it clear? Clear?
While you’re applying these steps to write a poem that will keep fresh for life, don’t forget all the rules of clear, effective writing. Don’t forget other “rules” of writing a good poem. Of composition.
Don’t forget to read,… a lot! Don’t forget to read a lot. Of poems. Don’t forget to own a favorite poet. And deconstruct several of her poems.
Deconstruct? Now, that’s not a simple word!
But it appears to be the only simple way to say cat, not felid catus, in order to eschew obfuscation. 🙂