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A Note on Sophistication and the Individual Reader
– originally posted to the PDC Feb. 4, 2014
– edited on blog, June 30, 2013, Nov. 24, 2013

A 'Best Of' post from the Best of the Poetry Daily Critique page.

"The Evil Key" by Sinéad Morrissey – Poetry Daily, 2/4/13


from Poetry Ireland Review (Dec. 2012)
poem found here

first lines:
In woods and lakes, car boots, freezers, huts,
in ministers' apartments where their flailing last



examining examining a poem


An observation: the more sophisticated an artist is, the more idiosyncratic their work tends to be. The less sophisticated, the more generic. This is not wholly reversible: I do not know if I would be willing to say that idiosyncracy is necessarily a sign of aesthetic sophistication. Ed Wood was pretty idiosyncratic, after all – though I would be willing to consider that such like he are the exceptions that prove the rule.

(Keep in mind, the generic is the opposite of the aesthetic: the former is convention driven, the latter is about individual experience/engagement.)

There are, loosely speaking, two paths to examining a poem. One is to explore it generally, through the lens of general poetics and the aesthetic. The other is to examine it more individually, through the lens of a writer reading the poem. The more sophisticated that reading writer, the more they tend to talk about poems from the point of view of "how would I have done this; how could I do it better?" While back on the general side, the question is more "how do I experience this poem to its fullest; what is it teaching me about aesthetic experience?"

From this comes two things. First, the more sophisticated is the reader, the less interest they will have in less sophisticated literature. It has nothing to offer them. Especially so with the aesthetic writer, who is always on the lookout for something to amaze them, something that will make their own work better – either through demonstration/instruction ("what can I learn from this?), or through direct challenge ("dammit, I could do better than that").

(Note, though, do not confuse, there, the writer reading for experience and the writer talking about a poem, though those two ideas do overlap.)

Second, you have to watch the words of a more sophisticated reading writer: are they talking about general poetics, or are they talking to (I say "to" not "out of") their own aesthetic vision? Both can be instructive to other readers; but, the latter threatens confusion if you try to make generalizations out of it.

Saying that, I am unsure to what degree my response to today's poem is talking about general aesthetics or about my own poetic perception. Specifically, I am speaking about line structure. Now, off the top, I will say I have an allergy to poems that are sentences broken up into lines. The exceeding majority of the time such an approach reveals nothing except that the writer of the poem has no ear whatsoever for the poetic line. They have never developed an ear for rhythm, sound, rhyme, anything. In a way, such poems have become a kind of genre of poetry – but it is a genre of dismissiveness rather than convention. That is to say, the governing convention is "the actual purpose of a poetic line is irrelevant, and can be ignored." Of course, the source and basis of this genre is laziness – if any old line can be accepted within the genre, then "poetry," as such, becomes a fairly easy enterprise, and the writer can concern themselves with diarrhetically (diaretically) documenting the emotions they felt when their puppy died.

But, then, that is not really poetry. The whole point of poetry – in fact, the whole point of any art aesthetically approached – is the manipulation of the medium to the end of experience.

So poems like "The Evil Key" can be for me irritating little buggers. The first six lines begin a wonderful excursion into iambic pentameter – except, I might say, for an aural stumble at "the LAKE, CAR boots." Sometimes I can read it smoothly; most of the time, it reads like a sudden – and jarring – reversal from iambs to trochees. But, otherwise, I love the sound: the occasional alliteration; the flow and play of vowels (notice lines 2 and 3, where two lines of rather subdued vowels both end with an upturn to slant-rhymed 'a's – love it); the excellent "last"; the lightly manipulated syntax; the varied words – but controlled words – that gives both energy and expansion to the opening ideation.

But then line 7, and an extra foot. Here is what is absolutely a near universal rule of poetics: don't start something and not keep it up. You readers who do not have an ear will not notice such; but, your more sophisticated readers will notice the change. And to them it sounds like the writer lost control – or abandoned control, or never really had control to begin with. Think of it this way: I am reading it, and I am thinking, "ooh, she's actually trying something with a little difficulty and calculation"; but, then, line seven and following, and what resides in my reading experience is disappointment. A big, "oh, never mind; this poem is just more of the same old same old, only a slightly more interesting at the start."

And this poem does rather decay from that point. Rhythm and line control laxen greatly. It gets sloppy in its sound: "Eurovision Song Contest" is a rather ugly phrase. "Denmark and Sweden's" is the exact opposite of the ideational lists in the opening, falling to basic factual statement. (Not to mention grammatically incorrect: the phrase is saying the whole of Denmark and the cleverest women of Sweden are on the way. It should be "Denmark's and Sweden's" – but, then, do you notice how the phrase becomes even less ideational and more factual sounding? Something to ponder.)

And yet,

and wired as no man with them ever is
to sense, without exactly evidence, where corpses

have been left

is wonderful. But then the lines following about flats and shafts are themselves rather flat, and banal. And F# is a very interesting insertion – but I don't find it brought in deftly at all.

So you see my irritation. And perhaps you see how in re-reading the poem what I would be doing, primarily, would no longer be experiencing the poem as is, but looking at it for how I would make it better, do it better. Create something better. (Especially with the F# – "it will invert anything" is too good an idea to permit half-handed use, too energy filled an idea to be a minor player.)

I find it endlessly curious how many poems I read that start off strong but lose control. It is often said – and truly – that the hardest parts of any literary work is the ending. Perhaps the second hardest part is everything else beyond the beginning. It speaks to the degree the writer is creating ideational unity, the microcosmos of the aesthetic work. I actually have much to say with that, but that's for another time.