A Bringer of New Things

Musings on personal growth, books, motherhood, writing, and more.

In Defense of Understandable Poetry

As an English education major in college, I was fortunate to be exposed to the great poets of old—Shakespeare, Donne, Keats, Longfellow, Dickinson, Frost, and so on—and I grew to dearly love their poetry, just as I had loved my books of silly kids’ poems when I was a child and the devotional poetry I discovered when I was a teenager. I’m not a brilliant poet myself, but I adore poetry that awes and resonates with me.

But poetry cannot awe and resonate with me if I cannot understand it. The poetry I’m seeing and hearing these days—in literary journals, on blogs, at writers’ conferences, and in other places as I keep my ears open for poetry—seems to me to be less about compact communication of experience and insight (which is a basic definition of poetry, at least as I was taught it) and more about inventing odd combinations of words.

Almost every poem I read in a literary journal is a poem that I cannot understand, even after multiple read-throughs.  The words don’t fit together but seem to have fallen out of a dictionary and collected at random (okay, perhaps that’s a slight exaggeration—at least in some cases). To me, this kind of poetry might as well not be poetry at all, but something like “journal-code-speak” or, as a fellow blogger and lover of Understandable Poetry calls it, “Jabber Wacky.”

As I see it, the current fashion in poetry favors obscurity and weirdness over understandability. Now, maybe I’m just an old fogey at heart, or maybe I’m ignorant—maybe appreciating this kind of poetry is a skill akin to appreciating abstract art. Or maybe I’m just honest about the fact that I can’t see the emperor’s new clothes. I don’t know. But I know that I don’t like this fashion of praising poetry that is basically obscure nonsense and pooh-poohing poetry that actually communicates interesting truth and experience.

Isn’t All Poetry Hard to Understand?

I have heard many people make this claim. I tend to chalk it up to English teachers who failed to walk students step-by-step through some really great poetry, because once you’ve gotten the hang of it, no, not all poetry is hard to understand! It may be harder to understand than a regular paragraph, and it may even require a few read-throughs and a dictionary, but it can be understood, and the effort to understand it is doubly rewarded by the pleasure of understanding the cleverness and meaning.

The first poem to make me literally shiver with delight every time I read it was John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” with its bcompass-148416_640eautiful compass metaphor and exquisitely perfect ending (about a perfect ending). To show you just the last stanza, which finishes the comparison between a mathematical compass and the speaker’s relationship with lover:

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like the other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.”

This is clear, pleasing, and rich, especially following after the rest of the poem.

Rhyme and Meter ≠ Simplisticness

Most of the great poets from the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries, if they were alive and writing today, would not get published in the journals of the literary establishment, which sneers at rhyme, meter, and easily understandable verse. If you read the writer’s guidelines for several literary journals, as I have, you’ll find a common theme of criteria: “We only want avant-garde, experimental, and literary poetry. No sentimental, greeting-card, or rhyming verse.” 

Listen. Rhyme and meter do not equal simplistic sentimentality. Plenty of deep, rich, and complex poetry uses rhyme and meter to enhance the power of what is being said and aid in the reader’s understanding of the poem.

This is what Robert Frost said about free verse poetry (poetry without rhyme and meter): “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.” No rules, no fun. On the other hand, I have read some free verse poems that moved me tremendously (for example, I have sometimes clung to Walt Whitman’s poem A noiseless, patient spider” as a liferaft). But this was because I could understand them.

Standing Up for Understandable Poetry

This is my manifesto; I’m taking a stand for understandable poetry. I’m also planning other steps: on this blog, I am preparing a “Great Poems” post series, in which I’ll share walk-throughs of some great poems and explain why I love them. (I wanted to be an English teacher, but life derailed me, so maybe I’ll get my fix through blogging!) I may also launch a bigger project in this vein later on.

Poetry can add richness, depth, meaning, and soul-touching music to our lives. But it can’t do that if we can’t understand it.


13 comments on “In Defense of Understandable Poetry

  1. Rose
    July 9, 2014

    Couldn’t agree more, and now usually, when there is a so-called “poem” in my Reader, I just delete it, because I just don’t GET it. And I’m an educated, well-read individual, so I don’t think I’m the problem. Love this post!


    • Sarrah J. Woods
      July 9, 2014

      Hooray! Thank you, Rose! I feel like the odd man out so often with this subject, so it’s really nice to hear that I’m not alone. The problem isn’t us, I think—the emperor is really not wearing any clothes!


  2. Witness
    July 10, 2014

    Well done, you! If that emperor has clothes, many of us can see right through them, even if we fail to trust our own experience.

    Maybe some perpetrators of senseless poetry really are trying to express themselves; maybe their efforts are ingenuous, as they strive to conform to the formless standard. It’s kind of a pathetic image, but it’s no worse than the thought that people knowingly churn out twaddle and parade it as poetry.

    The trend you describe is part of a larger picture I see, of people failing to object in all sorts of settings when things don’t make sense. In order to function at all, at least in today’s USA, we must sign contracts and other documents we can’t possibly understand, and conform to sets of laws that are sometimes nonsensical and self-contradicting (try reading a few city codes) and sometimes much too long for comprehension (see our federal laws). There are obvious reasons for making contracts obscure: For one, it’s an easy way to take advantage of the overwhelmed; for another, it takes extra effort to create a document that is clear and coherent.

    But nonsense intrudes even on conversation. I think that too is sometimes linked to overwhelm; we often feel like we don’t have time or attention for conversation that has anything unexpected in it. I think also there’s a fear of seeming nonconformist; to interrupt the usual rush to ask for clarification, given how rarely this is done, can come across as rude and gauche, even aggressive. When our failure to make sense goes unchallenged, we tend to get sloppy.

    Poetry’s drift toward nonsense isn’t likely to be caused by the same things that fuel those other forms of obscurity, but I wonder whether poets are expressing (unconsciously) the cognitive effects of those similar trends. Making sense is a skill that must be learned, and maybe today’s poets are absorbing instead the art of obfuscation.

    Lowering expectations of understanding is a process that feeds on itself.

    It’s unfortunate that poetry is suffering from the pandemic. Perhaps your speaking up will help some poets find their way back. Either way, your post is a gift to the rest of us.

    Thanks for sharing the benefits of your integrity.


  3. Sarrah J. Woods
    July 11, 2014

    Witness, thank you for these insights. I heartily agree, and lately I find myself more and more able to recognize and call out nonsense when I see it, not just in poetry but in prose and in the everyday forms you mention—contracts, conversations, and elsewhere.

    It’s true, I think, that nonsense in conversation is the hardest to object to—perhaps, in addition to the reasons you mention, because of our need for approval and agreement (and fear of disapproval and conflict). That’s an issue for me, anyway, of course. But in the pursuit of standing up for clarity, I think I am your disciple, and I’m learning, gradually and gratefully. 🙂

    I also agree that many, if not most, poets who write in the fashionable style of the day are sincerely trying to express. I think you hit the nail on the head with these words: “Making sense is a skill that must be learned, and maybe today’s poets are absorbing instead the art of obfuscation.” Hear hear!


  4. amber decker
    July 18, 2014

    Awesome post! I feel the same way about all of this new, experimental craziness going on. Sometimes, it’s cool to see the odd juxtapositions…but when I read poetry, I am hunting for accessibility and something I can relate to. I want a story, a feeling, a voice…a scene that comes alive.

    Can’t wait to read more of your thoughts on this! 🙂


    • Sarrah J. Woods
      July 18, 2014

      Yay, thank you, Amber! Your approval of this opinion means a lot, of course. I’m so glad to know that you, too, seek accessibility in poems.

      For the record, at the WV Writers Conferences, I always thought your poems were more accessible (and yet FAR from simplistic) than anyone else’s, and that drew me to them more.



  5. Pingback: Great Poems: “A Noiseless Patient Spider” by Walt Whitman | Sarrah J. Woods

  6. Mark Rhoads
    August 9, 2016

    Oh yah! There are lots of naked emperors out there. I recently perused a long list of journals looking for someplace to publish my poems. Naked emperors all!

    I recall finding Donne and Herbert and Richard Wilbur and Billy Collins along the way–what wonder, what insight, what clarity.


    • Sarrah J. Woods
      August 9, 2016

      Thanks for the comment, Mark! It’s nice to know that others share my feelings about this. For what it’s worth, since I wrote this post, I have been finding my way to more and more contemporary poetry that IS understandable (including Billy Collins, as you mention), although I still prefer the older styles and structured formats seen in poets like Donne, Herbert, Shakespeare, Frost, Dickinson, E.A. Robinson, and the rest. But I still have no patience for poetry, poets, and poetry journals that seem to think persistent obfuscation of meaning is a sign of good poetry!


      • Mark Rhoads
        August 9, 2016

        Speaking of structured formats, I hope you’ve discovered Richard Wilbur, modern master of metrical poetry.


        • Sarrah J. Woods
          August 9, 2016

          Actually, no, I meant to say that, that I hadn’t heard of him. I will definitely check him out! Thank you!


          • Mark Rhoads
            August 9, 2016

            Garrison Keillor’s anthologies (Good Poems and Good Poems for Hard Times for example) are full of wonderful understandable poems (and the poets who wrote them). Keillor’s preface to Good Poems is priceless. I also invite you to read my poetry. You can find some examples from my published collection on my website–you have the web address I believe.


            • Sarrah J. Woods
              August 12, 2016

              Actually, Garrison Keillor is the person I credit with having introduced me to more contemporary poets of understandable style. I do have Good Poems for Hard Times, but it’s actually just his daily NPR show called Writer’s Almanac that has helped most. Often he will read a poem that intrigues me enough to make me go look up the poet and see what else he/she has written. Writer’s Almanac is always a highlight of my day. 🙂


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