"Given the fact of lyric obscurity--perhaps the only fact a poem yields to its readers--one wonders what sort of bond, if any, a poem establishes with its readers, with the sensory realm evoked by its words, or with the society in which it appears (if indeed it makes an appearance). More to the point, after a century or programmatic obscurity, a great deal of serious poetry seems to have abandoned the task of communication, the will to directly influence common, public discourse and evolving conceptions of community. Must we therefore presume that the obscurity of poetry, in comparison with other genres and medias, bars it from over social engagement and, even more radically, that no viable model of relational being can be deduced from the conditions of lyric obscurity?"The answer a friendly reader is meant to give Tiffany's not entirely rhetorical question is, of course, "no," and the answer that a frustrated or less friendly reader would give is, also of course, "yes." Personally, I'm not comfortable with or pleasured by what I've taken to calling secret-handshake poetry, but Tiffany's point is well taken. Poetry has always been obscure to at least some of its readers, more and less so at different times, just like there have always been other communities and other forms of language whose (somewhat private) language is difficult for outsiders to access.(Daniel Tiffany, Infidel Poetics:Riddles, Nightlife, Substance, p.3)
The question for poets and their readers has always been the definition of community, of who might reasonably be expected to understand and appreciate the published (or at least written) words. Coterie poets in ages past wrote deliberately for small, specific readerships who would have recognized additional significance in coded references, mentions of privately memorable events, that sort of thing, so one defense that's sometimes offered against the difficulty of much contemporary poetry is that it's not unlike a return to coterie publication. And given the print run of much contemporary poetry, it's a tempting defense.
These points were in my head recently as I wrote back and forth with a regular correspondent about the rewards and frustrations of reading contemporary poetry, so it made sense that they kept rattling around as I worked through rob mclennan's red earth, book 5 in the Palm Poets Series from Black Moss Press. (If you want to get a sense for him before continuing, here's an interview with mclennan about this book, and here's a link to his blog.) mclennan's a tireless worker, an insightful reviewer, and a very good contemporary poet, thus making one of his books a useful test case for the kinds of ideas that Tiffany raises.
Ignore success, for now. Some of the poems in red earth are clear and illuminating, such as those inspired by Louis Dudek and Kevin Connolly (pp.36&38), and these poems would work fine for someone resistant to the idea that obscurity is a virtue, maybe even a necessity. mclennan has a distinct ability with the piercing line, such as those expressing a moment poised between nostalgia and desire in "invisible techniques (after gb" (yes, there's no closing parenthesis), so if he wanted to write straightforward lyric poems, he'd do just fine in that mode.
But he's not interested in being that sort of poet, or at least not only that sort of poet, so that's why I found myself thinking about Daniel Tiffany. I mean, what do you do with this (imagining, in addition, that the last line of each stanza is indented from the rest)?
"summer: 31st year"No, really, what do you do with it?
i threw my hands in, swirl
of the sunny terrasse, are
& then wondering, you in town?
bites down hard on my lip, she, quarters
& others that keep me holed,
pigeon, sparrow, quail.
sleeps in the morning of small shadows,
opens her hair up to the shower rail
& picturesque, wholly sweet.
this is the door i will design to open. this is
the bicycle that will take me. this
is the key i will break. (p.76)