Sometimes when a reader reads a poem, the meaning can seem very clear. For example, look at the following poem:
The death of Rollie the cat
Sometime in the night,
beneath the blue chair,
her eyes closed.
This poem should be very clear to the reader. The title describes exactly what it is about and the poem itself, in some sense, fulfills the title. From the title, a reader should be expecting to read about the death of Rollie the cat, and then they do.
Although the poem is clear, it does have some symbolism. The death occurred at night (a time of darkness), in a hidden place, and beneath something. The chair is blue, symbolizing sadness, and the death is described peacefully. These symbols though, don’t take away from the clarity of the poem. This poem doesn’t require any explanation to make sense.
Now consider the following poem:
Through the canyons,
with bounds and flight,
during the night.
This poem is a mixture of clarity and obscurity. In a literal sense, the poem seems to be talking about starlight. It seems to describe it moving about and then fading. Although the imagery and sound is a bit flowery, a literal meaning does come through.
On another level though, this poem is obscure. How can starlight bound and fly? How does it move through canyons? Why would it fade during the night? The poem, in some sense, doesn’t make sense.
Underneath, this poem is about the same subject as the first poem. It is about the death of Rollie the cat. Rollie, in the poem, is symbolized by starlight. This symbolism shows the positive emotions toward Rollie.
When Rollie was alive, she was very active and in some sense light in her movements. This is described in the first two lines. Rollie died though. Her death is described in the last two lines.
The imagery, symbolism, syllable count and rhyme increased the obscurity of this poem. While a reader might understand that it is about something active and bright ending, they might not know the real meaning unless they were told.
If they were told, however, for example, if someone said that this poem was about Rollie the cat, the ideas and meaning become much clearer. The poem does not have many levels to its symbolism. Once a reader knows it is about Rollie, the starlight fading, takes on the proper meaning. The reader does not have to be told Rollie died, to understand that she did.
Now consider this poem:
and a summer breeze,
the sand crystals shined,
while the melody played.
What is this poem about? From the meanings of the poems above, a reader might understand that it too is about the death of Rollie the cat, but taken alone, the meaning isn’t so clear.
The poem has no title, and it mentions nothing about death, cats or the idea of ending in any overt ways.
The poem is full of symbolism. Rollie the cat is seen as something good, but something that only lasted for a short time. In the poem, this concept is symbolized by the first three lines. Flowers are nice, but fade quickly. Snowflakes are nice, but hardly last in their flake form. A summer breeze blows in and then is gone. All of these things symbolize the temporariness of Rollie’s life.
The sand crystals is in reference to an hourglass. An hourglass is made partially of glass and glass is made from silica and silica is in sand. The shining part combined with the sand crystals, is saying that time shined. This time shined, while the melody played. The melody played, while Rollie was alive.
The underlying meaning of this poem is obscure. By itself, the poem doesn’t let the reader know what it is about. Even if someone said that the poem was about Rollie the cat, a reader might not understand it was about her death. They might think it was just talking about the happiness of her life.
A question that a poet can encounter as they write poetry, is should their poetry be clear, a mixture of clarity and obscurity or obscure? The examples above illustrate one of each type of poetry applied to the same subject.
Clear poetry has the advantage that it makes sense. A reader should be able to easily understand what the poem is about. The message comes through.
On the downside, clear poetry might lack the nuances, depth and subtly that obscurity can provide. Also, it means the poet has to be overt with their subject. Additionally, some may view it as simplistic.
Poetry that is a mixture of clarity and obscurity has the advantage that readers understand it, but it also has enough symbolism and metaphor that readers can understand more if they pause to think about the poem. It can be a style of poetry, such that one brief explanation, causes the whole poem to make sense. Also, this style gives the poet the advantage that they can write overtly where they want, but kept things more hidden where they choose.
As a downside, mixing clarity and obscurity can be hard. If there is an imbalance, such that the poem is very clear with little moments of obscurity, the obscure moments can seem out of place and confusing. Alternatively, if the poem is mainly obscure, with little moments of clarity, the clear moments can be swallowed in a sense by the obscure ones and seem part of the obscurity. The reader might not know those moments were more literal. With either imbalance, when a reader is told the main meaning of the poem, it might not match well with the poem.
Poetry that is obscure has the advantage that a poet can explore many areas of depth, symbolism and metaphor. A poet can frame what they want to talk about in many ways. Also, a poet can keep the underlying meaning of their poem hidden.
On the downside, obscure poetry can be hard for some to understand. Some readers might not get it, even if they were given a brief explanation. Also, some may view the obscurity as lack of skill. They might think that the poet was obscure because they did not know how to express their ideas in a way that made sense.
When choosing between the styles, a poet should consider their intent and the situation. Each style lends itself to a different goal. A poet should consider the reader’s perspective and decide which style will help them achieve what they want.