I’ve been dipping into a number of poetry books recently. I’ve also been watching YouTube videos analysing matches from the recent World Chess Championship. It occurs to me poetry and chess have a lot in common: I love the idea of both; I admire their precision; and much of the time I find them completely impenetrable.
Of course, there is good and bad poetry, and there is good and bad chess. Were I ever sufficiently reckless to attempt either, I’m confident my efforts would fall squarely into the bad category. But telling the difference between good and bad is where my poetry-chess analogy begins to break down.
I don’t think I could ever look at a game of chess and tell an extremely good player from a merely competent one simply by following their moves. But when good chess is explained to me, as in the YouTube videos, I begin to appreciate just how talented the top players are. They really are very good indeed. Leagues ahead of the likes of you and me. (No slight intended.)
When it comes to poetry, however, I do usually have at least some unaided appreciation of what it is I’m reading. Some poems I get, but they do little for me. Some I really enjoy. Some remain completely impenetrable.
The problem is, even if someone were sufficiently patient to explain to me why an impenetrable poem is, in fact, very good indeed, I’m far from sure I’d be able to appreciate the talent behind it. Doubtless I would in some cases, but not, I suspect, in the majority. Indeed, the philistine in me would argue that good poetry shouldn’t need explaining. Isn’t the entire point of poetry to convey thoughts and feelings? To be penetrable? Well, perhaps not the entire point, but shouldn’t comprehensibility be at least a requirement? Poems aren’t cryptic crosswords. They aren’t chess puzzles. They shouldn’t require ‘cracking’. If you have something insightful to say, why not say it in language reasonably intelligent people can understand? To do otherwise seems to me to be missing an opportunity—or, in more extreme cases, far worse, to be trying to come across as cleverer than the rest of us.
I’m not saying poetry shouldn’t be challenging, but I often suspect poets I don’t understand are going out of their way to be obscure. Or perhaps they’re just bad poets.
Same difference, as far as this monumental philistine is concerned.