Should Poets Write to be Understood?

Recently, an acquaintance related how her father had given her, and other members of his family a book of poetry he had written. The result? None of the recipients of his gift understood his work.

My acquaintance argues that poets ought to compose poetry their readers are able to comprehend, rather than using obscure metaphors and references to mythology which comparatively few people can understand.

Whilst I agree that poets should not be deliberately obscure, I am of the view that the first duty of a poet is to be true to themselves. It is, undoubtedly odd for poets to deliberately compose obscure poetry (and I am sceptical that many do so). However the fact that a poem or series of poems is difficult to interpret does not imply that the poet deliberately made them so.

One can not converse with the dead. But where one to have this privilege, and where one to be able to ask T. S. Eliot about The Wasteland (which many struggle to interpret), he would, I suspect say that his readers should make an effort to understand his poetry, and that he had to write the poem as he did.

I have not met the father of my acquaintance. But I am in no doubt that he put his heart and soul into his work, and that I for one would feel impertinent where I to say “sir, I don’t understand your work, you should have made it mor comprehensible”.

Seemingly simple poems can be open to interpretation. In my Selected Poems is one entitled Raining. I awoke one morning and, hearing the rain was reminded of mortality. I will die but the rain will continue as it always has.

A reader interpreted the reference to rain as implying sadness and, in particular tears. In fact I love the rain and my poem flowed from a feeling of contentment on my part. We all die but there is continuity and beauty in the eternal rain, and the knowledge of this fills me with joy rather than sorrow.

Ultimately poets must remain true to themselves and not sacrifice their art merely to bough down to the lowest common denominator. I hope that people understand what I write, but I will not change the manner in which I compose my poetry to enhance the understanding of my readers.

As always, I would welcome comments.

12 thoughts on “Should Poets Write to be Understood?

    1. K Morris Poet Post author

      You make an excellent point, Chris. I am reminded of the quotation, “Here I stand. I can do no other”. I think this could be rephrased as, “I write as I do. I can do no other”.

      Thanks for commenting.


    1. K Morris Poet Post author

      I agree with you Robbie, as regards poetry being a very personal form of writing. I also agree with you that, on the whole I prefer simple poetry. However, a poem may be deceptive in that it appears to say one thing, but the poet was, in fact hinting at something other than the reader takes away from his reading of the poem. Also complex poetry can often be worth the reading. Best wishes. Kevin

  1. V.M.Sang

    I sometimes think that peole assume a poet is trying to say something deep and interpret it in a way the poet had no thoughts of. Like in your post about Wordsworth’s Daffodils. (Which I never got around to replying to.)
    Ooh! 2 sentences ending with a preposition! Slapped wrist for bad writing!
    But I have no objection to references to Greek myths, or even Viking gods. Maybe because I have a smattering of knowledge about them. It’s such a pity, no, more than a pity, a scandal, that the Greek myths especially are not taught in schools. They have so much to tell us about life. And the Ancient philosophers, too.
    When I began my secondary education, we began with ancient Mesopotamia, and passed through the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans first. I did History to ‘O’ level and we ended with the beginning of WW1, so all in all, covered a vast amount of time in 5 years. I don’t know what’s taught now, but I suspect much is later stuff.
    If not in history, then these things could be taught in English, too.
    If this were the case, then poetry might not be so difficult. References to the Elysian Fields? No problem. We’d know what that was about. Opening Pandora’s box? Again, no problem.

    1. K Morris Poet Post author

      I agree with you Vivienne that people often assume that a poet is trying to say something complex when, in fact he or she is saying precisely what is on the label of the tin! I also agree that it is a shame that people (well many of them) have such a sparce knowledge of mythology. Kevin

    1. K Morris Poet Post author

      Many thanks for your comment, Michael. Yes, part of the joy of reading a poem is the differing interpretations of readers as regards the same poem. It is interesting how people can interpret the same poem in different ways.

      Best wishes. Kevin


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