On Complexity in Poetry

So a man walks
into a bar and asks
for a drink.  The bar
tender drinks
the bar. The man
is left empty.

I’ve been reading Kay Ryan because I’m writing a series of blog posts about her for Inprint.  I don’t have much experience with her as a writer, though I’ve heard of her and read some of her poems over the years (I read so many literary journals that I’ve been exposed to most everyone in the world of poetry, it seems, though I remember very few).

And I’ve been thinking about complexity in poetry partly because of reading Ryan and partly because of yesterday’s post on complexity in fiction and partly because I’m always worried about this sort of layering in my own poetry (or the lack thereof).

In poetry it’s easy to become fixed in one mode or method or purpose.

It’s easy to fixate on the image, as the image is the heart of poetry (and, in essence, the heart of writing, of language) and when people think about poetry they think about the beautiful pictures it illuminates.

And it’s easy to focus on form, as poetry is nothing if not a formal creation, a kind of literature set aside by its refusal to follow traditional grammatical structures.  Who needs paragraphs?  Who needs punctuation?  Who needs sense?

And it’s easy to focus on poetry as a vehicle of sound, to let the internal rhymes of the line overpower the ear.  The words build on each other like the instruments in a orchestra so that, even reading silently, the words force movement from your silent tongue.

And it’s easy to think of poetry as the last bastion of true philosophy, with language pared down to the bare essentials.  Poetry speaks more to the common person than the esoteric philosophy of the day, and the smallness of poems allows for an epigrammatic terseness that invites thought beyond the thoughts in the poem itself.  Poetry as a call to thought rather than predigested thoughts itself.

It’s easy to think of poetry as all of these things individually, to get wrapped up in the one over the others, the image over the philosophy, the sound over sense, the form – well, you never really get over the form.

But a poem that is only doing one thing is a failure.  A poem without tension is dead language.

Which is why there can be no successful poem that is simply happy (butterflies and ponies and first kisses) and there can be no successful poem that is simply sad (butterfly wings and ponies with broken legs and last kisses).  Complexity in poetry – complexity in writing – brings life to the writing, which means evoking life in the writing.

No sadness without hints of its opposite.

No happiness without hints of its dissipation.

Nothing matters but in context with everything else.

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