July is a long month. There are ten days still to go. I’ve read 56 sets of poems now, and I’m getting tired.

Also I may have become completely neurotic. This leaning verb thing, for example. I keep falling over them. And the ‘as’ construction keeps popping up (you know I hate that word) at the end of what is otherwise a nice poem.

Last night I was constructing verse in my sleep, stanzas that would exemplify the recurring patterns.

The long day is longer, hotter than ever before
and the leaning verb thing leans in-
to my consciousness as I read. It’s
familiar as conscience, seductive
as silk. It feels like poetry, aches
like an old grudge. As I move out of the sun
it leans over to me, reaches my ankles,
whispers reassurance, and burns.

One day a poet will take revenge on me. It will be easy. The person will trawl through my two full collections to find examples of Helena Nelson doing exactly the same thing. I know, I know. The semi-colon in my own eye is what makes me see it in others.

Here are two more things that go wrong though. First, there’s the poem that makes complete sense to the poet but less sense to the reader.

Here’s what Ruth Pitter has to say about obscurity:

[ . . . ] I think a real poem, however simple its immediate content, begins and ends in mystery. It begins in that secret movement of the poet’s being in response to the secret dynamism of life. It continues as a structure made of and evolved from and clothed in the legal tender and common currency of language; perhaps the simpler the better, so that the crowning wonder, if it comes, may emerge clear of hocus-pocus. (I think it is important to make the plain meaning of the words as clear as possible, but it cannot always be made entirely clear. Our only obscurities, I feel, should be those we are driven into; then a sort of blessing may descend, making such obscurity magical.)

I agree. There’s a kind of necessary obscurity. It arises when you write about something you don’t fully understand. The poem may be an attempt to grasp an idea bigger than itself. But it is “important to make the plain meaning of the words as clear as possible” and that’s where things can go amiss. It can start when the poet chooses an obscure title, and then goes on to other layers of obscurity.

Imagine, for example, that the title is ‘Miasma’ and the poem is about the day the poet learned she was at risk of losing her sight. The verb ‘to see’ is a wonderful one to play with, because it means see with the eyes and understand with the brain. “I could not see what he meant” in the context of this imagined poem, therefore, is pregnant with irony.

However, the unknown reader may not see what the poet is talking about, or only with difficulty. Perhaps the poet has introduced her poem to a group of friends – a workshop group perhaps – and the group already knows (or she tells them) about the experience underpinning the text. Nothing is obscure to them.

But often it’s more difficult for a general reader. I often get to the end of a poem and feel unsure what it was about. I assume the deficiency is in me. I read the text again. I think it might be about a) or it might be about b). It could even be about c). I feel wary of making a comment in case I reveal my own idiocy.

Should all poems be immediately comprehensible? Obviously not. The delight may reside in the mystery. I can think of poems I love that I’ve never fully understood. But I think this is the obscurity Ruth Pitter calls “magical”. It’s a mysteriousness the poet is driven into unavoidably.

I once shared a little poem in a workshop group – a poem by me, I mean. It was about an innocent childhood memory and yes, it was a bit obscure. To my horror, my friends were convinced it was an experience of sexual abuse. I couldn’t see any way to save it. The poem went to the bottom of the ragbag.

One last thing. I like narrative poems, by which I mean poems with a story at their heart. But I notice the heaviness when they involve a backstory with past perfect or habitual tenses.

The same difficulty often afflicts short stories:

“I had often seen Mr Parr on a Tuesday morning. He’d be shouldering his purple and green backpack. He would wave to me as he marched past my garden. He’d almost certainly be wearing his mauve hat with a white pompom. But today was different.”

If you can avoid the past perfects, with their heavy ‘d’ sounds, I would do it. In a poem you can almost always swing straight into the simple past, without having to explain (through your verb tenses) which action came before which. For example:

On Tuesdays Mr Parr waved as he marched past
with his purple and green backpack, and
his mauve hat with a white pompom. But today
was different.

The reason for avoiding the he’ds and you’ds and we’ds is two fold. First, the mechanism is unimaginative – such an obvious way of filling in background. Second, if you fill your poem full of ‘d’ sounds, it’s like a bag of stones. It sinks straight to the bottom of the river.


  1. That Ruth Pitter extract was very interesting. I’m not sure that I could tell you what the difference is between a good magical obscurity caused by “a sort of blessing, and bad “hocus pocus”. It seems to me that they are both identical phenomena – performances of magic by means of incantation – the only difference being that we take one to be the real deal and dismiss the other as quack mountebankery.

    I suppose that’s the whole problem with obscurity in poems – you don’t know whether you’re looking at a finely-carved rood screen in the temple of a real god or that tricky curtain in the chamber of the Great and Powerful Oz, if there’s even a difference, which, of course, there isn’t. You can’t look behind the screen to check if there’s a snake-oil merchant pulling levers back there. The poem/screen is all there is.

    I’m saying, I guess, that we shouldn’t suggest that any poetry can do real magic. Rather, we should embrace the hocus pocus, and value the poet who fools us most convincingly.

  2. I sort of agree. That is to say I think it may be another way around saying the same thing. Except, I think the[i] poet[/i] needs to be in touch with whether it’s tom-foolery or something they too are grappling with. And I think the poet can try her best for plain dealing, and try to be aware that what’s plain for her is not necessarily plain for her reader.

    Actually, like most poets, Ruth Pitter was describing what was true for [i]her.[/i] It isn’t the same for everybody. Poets are awfully prone to generalising from their own experience. I guess I must be no exception.

  3. I’ve been so aware of leaning verbs recently, as well as their travelling companion, the missing “and”. (I’d have expected a missing “and” before “burn” at the end of your first example!) So I looked up your blogs about it, to start a debate online in a closed group. I find there is real pressure in workshops to have leaning verbs and also to include lists of things, with no “and” at the end (after the Oxford comma!)This kind of thing: “I go into the garden, pick helibore, Alium, Chrysanthemum, Phlox.” I’ve talked about these being (sometimes) “tics” but I’m not getting much agreement. :-/

  4. Yes, the missing ‘and’ is another feature, I agree. Something to do with creating a pattern that’s less prosy, I think. And in the example you give, I think it adds an air of wistfulness.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.