Some months ago I wrote about Neil Pattison’s “Preferences” collection and commented on his reference to Steven Malkmus in ‘Spoils’. Neil and I then had some correspondence and Neil indicated that he thought this reference was secretive rather than obscure. I now know what the ‘secret’ is and it’s safe to say that no amount of digging around in Pavement lyric sheets is going to reveal it but this exchange did set off a train of thought that I haven’t been able to get rid of.
Most good poetry gets charged with the sin of obscurity and this usually means the use of allusion or direct references to out-of-the way bits of information and this is supposed to be a Bad Thing. Hill is frequently accused of this and his response is that he doesn’t want to insult the intelligence of his readers. References to Bradwardine and Gabriel Marcel may not be part of mainstream liberal knowledge but they are clearly signposted and any reader is able to follow these through. The reference to the ‘grinning cake’ in Comus is not signposted in any way and is therefore secret to Hill even though Tom Day has made a brave stab at interpretation.
Then there’s extreme obscurity which is where the knowledge exists in the public domain but readers are not given a clue where to begin. John Wilkinson has recently pointed out in Glossator that Prynne’s use of “rap her to bank” in ‘Word Order’ is a quote from a coal miners’s song yet this isn’t indicated as an allusion or reference in the poem. The relevant section reads-
Would you take a chance on it
or take a cut, in the cavity
rap her to bank:nothing
This is certainly obscure but is it secretive? It could be argued that the phrase is distinctive enough to be read as a quote and that readers with a knowledge of miner’s songs would recognise it. on the other hand, for the rest of us, the meaning will remain hidden.
Then there’s wilful obscurity. Ezra Pound prompted Eliot to change the epigraph from Conrad’s “The horror!” quote in ‘Heart of Darkness” to a quote from ‘The Satyricon’ (In Latin and Greek) on the grounds that “I doubt if Conrad is weighty enough to stand the citation” even though Eliot found it to be “elucidative”.
Now we come to secrecy which may occur in a number of ways. I’m defining secrecy as something that the poet writes but does not intend to be ‘discovered’. I read something recently about Celan that said that a particular poem only makes sense if you know what Celan did on a visit to a city and what he saw there. Celan has also famously described his poems as ‘a message in a bottle’ which can only be fully grasped by those who ‘find’ them.
In Pattison’s case, I’m in a privileged position because I’m now ‘in’ on the nature of the secret but I still have to ask why it was inserted in the first place in a poem that was published. I like to think of myself as being an attentive reader and would probably worked my way through Pavement lyrics till I found the reference, looked at it in context and ended up none the wiser or have extrapolated ‘meaning’ that wasn’t actually there. It could be argued of course that the secret is an integral part of the poem and that it ‘fits’ with one or more of the themes but in order to make a judgement on that you need to know that it’s a secret.
So, the poet flags up an image or a piece of information and then (by not elaborating) withdraws it from sight. It could be argued that Prynne does this too- the above reference isn’t signalled by quotation marks nor is it long enough for the rest of us (if we know that it’s a quote) to follow through. Perhaps I should have found the Pavement quote and extrapolated from there thus making a meaning that wasn’t intended, perhaps that’s what secrecy/withdrawal is about.