Free Association Issue 5

   Issue#5: July - December 2005


Is complexity necessary in a poem?

In George Herbert’s great poem “A Wreath,” to my eyes the greatest and most moving moment happens when the phrase “Give me simplicity” breaks into a syntax that is anything but simple. This syntax both embodies and tries to make order out of “our crooked winding ways,” how everything we experience is a labyrinth because we ourselves are deceit. Everything is connected to everything but we experience the connections as paradox and darkness. Out of this comes the plea for simplicity--simplicity that only a power more than human (for Herbert, God) can show us is more fundamental than the wilderness of feeling, of deception tied to deception, that is our experience of ourselves. Herbert’s poems again and again enact this coming into a sudden awareness of fundamental simplicity: think of the ending of “The Collar” or “Love III.”

But these endings have their meaning and power because what has gone before, Herbert’s rendering of our experience and desire, is not simple. One of the marks, for me, of the greatest literature, is the brilliant simple statement that comes out of a verbal texture that is its opposite: think of “Beauty is the beginning of terror” in Rilke’s “Duino Elegies,” or “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” in Eliot’s “Gerontion.” These “simple” statements (and I think one feels Eliot’s question as a statement) don’t flatten or reduce the complexity around them, but are a brief clearing that leads one to the next thicket.

I love Dudley Fitts’ little book of free translations, “Poems from the Greek Anthology” (New Directions, 1956). So many of these brief poems stand as an ideal of eloquence, of cutting-through to something utterly elemental, that almost no (perhaps no) contemporary poetry possesses. Here is an example:


At sixty I, Dionysios of Tarsos, lie here,
Never having married:
                                      and I wish my father had not.

And another, also by Anonymous:


Stranger by the roadside, do not smile
When you see this grave, though it is only a dog’s.
My master wept when I died, and his own hand
Laid me in earth and wrote these lines on my tomb.

Lyrics at the beginning of a tradition at their best have this enviable I-am-only-going-to-say-the-most-fundamental-things simplicity. So often later this impulse turns into boring epigrammatic put-downs, or sentimental reductiveness. What is crucial to notice in Fitts’ versions is that this simplicity is not the opposite of complexity, not at the cost of complexity. In the first poem, after “Never having married” one expects mourning for all the things that “never happened” in this life; instead, Dionysios mourns that life itself ever happened. The second poem is about how the dog’s “master” is not the master. Directness and simplicity cut deep into an earth that is not simple. The art here is in the marriage of opposites.

Simple/Complex....Well, sometimes a very simple image, like a haiku, for example, can elicit a deep awareness of language and life. For another reader, it will just be an image of a broken flower, like any other weed, unnoticed in daily life, and then maybe not meaningful enough to that person. Sometimes a reader will encounter a very complex poem with layers of abstractions (some made concrete) and metaphors and the thinking process required may elicit a deep awareness about language, life and maybe politics. For someone else the haiku about the broken flower and the upside down stone might be political, pointing out an unnoticed detail. For another poet, it is necessary to deconstruct syntax. Some readers may find this complex poem simple. Maybe they read differently without trying to understand a single meaning (stand under the meaning). A poem constructed from collaged phrases and words may seem terribly complex and unapproachable for those who are accustomed to a rational representation of time and space. Collage words and suddenly the words themselves are material on the page. For some there is a beautiful simplicity in using words in this way.  

For me, I am happy to not have these boundaries of simple/complex. A poem can be a simple telling of an event in one's life, a simple image, an amazing collage and compilation of details, a deconstruction of an advertisement, a layered critique, and so forth and so on . . .  

In yoga, there are many ways to reach the divine, through the intellect or through the senses. So in poetry.

All other things being equal (—among poems, it never is), the greater the number of fused oppositions clearly rendered and apprehensible, the better the poem.  But there are an infinite number of possible qualifications to any such principle, and principles are probably useless as working ideas.

I don’t like the idea of any particular quality being prescribed for poetry, so part of me would like to say no. On the other hand, I would say that musical, semantic, and ontological complexities are inherent to poetry. To begin with, a poem’s “I” is as large and various and indeterminate as the subjectivity of its readers. That fact alone gives it a certain political complexity.  A good poem reveals new depths of meaning, new forms of music as it is read in different contexts. You can never quite reach the bottom of it.  So while I wouldn’t say complexity is something poetry needs, I would say it is something poetry has.