J.D. McClatchy (who looks just like his photograph, except that he wears glasses to read) gave a reading on campus today. I hadn't heard him read before; he was quite good. He was here in the first place -- and has been in town for a couple of weeks or so -- because IU's Jacobs School of Music was hosting the premiere of the Our Town opera, for which Ned Rorem wrote the music and McClatchy wrote the libretto. He opened the reading by speaking for a minute about the differences between writing poetry & writing libretti; when you write a libretto you are aiming for simplicity and clarity, whereas "Poetry, on the other hand, is meant to complicate things, not simplify things."
This is interesting to me because, yes, complexity does seem to be one of the criteria for poetry; but at the same time poetry requires an economy of language, and poetic language provides a certain directness, a language that hews more closely to actual sense-experience -- it's like a more faithful translation of the untranslatable, if that makes any sense at all. So really, poetry simplifies by complicating -- or complicates by simplifying, depending on which end of the telescope you choose to look through. Poetry doesn't (or shouldn't, anyway) use complexity for the purpose of sheer obfuscation; it complicates in order to make the familiar strange, to make the reader see it new and in that novelty to see it more clearly illumined. Complexity in the name, not of confusion, but of the kind of clarity you can only get when you've got to give it your full attention and work for it a bit.
I think of Adrienne Rich's poem "Planetarium," a poem which has been a touchstone for me for many years. It ends like this:
I have always thought that "the most accurately transmitted most / untranslateable language in the universe" was as close to a definition of poetry as I was ever going to see.I have been standing all my life in the
direct path of a battery of signals
the most accurately transmitted most
untranslateable language in the universe
I am a galactic cloud so deep so invo-
luted that a light wave could take 15
years to travel through me And has
taken I am an instrument in the shape
of a woman trying to translate pulsations
into images for the relief of the body
and the reconstruction of the mind.
Anyway, McClatchy's reading obviously made me think, which is always a good thing. :) He read several poems from Hazmat along with some others, including "My Mammogram" (which for some reason struck me today as parallelling Mark Doty's "Heaven for Paul" closely in some ways -- I'll have to go back & give the two a side-by-side reading, but the way they juxtapose the comic, the frightening, & the profound in a narrative context seems similar). Oh, and during the brief Q&A afterwards someone asked about his writing process; he said that he tries to carry poems around in his head as long as possible because once you write them down you fall in love with them, & then he works on them for a fairly long time. I envy poets who can carry poems around in their heads like that; I find that if I don't jot down at least something, I lose track of it. I mean, I'll sometimes chew on a few lines inside my head for an hour or two, but that's about it. Perhaps the remembery part of my brain is broken. Or dented, at least.
EDIT: Here's a brief write-up of McClatchy's reading from the Indiana Daily Student.