In an essay called “Against Decoration,” Mary Karr makes a case for using “decoration” in poetry – figurative language, sonic beauty – only in service of a greater purpose, what she takes to be the “primary purpose” of poetry: “to stir emotion.” “Delight in dense idiom or syntax,” she writes, is a secondary purpose (50). Further, she claims, the problem with many contemporary poets (this essay was published in 1991) is that they favor decoration over emotion and clarity. “In my view,” Karr writes,
emotion in a reader derives from reception of a clear rendering of primal human experiences: fear of death, desire, loss of love, celebration of being. To spark emotion, a poet must strive to attain what Aristotle called simple clarity (56).Using a James Merrill poem as an exemplar of typical New Yorker-friendly, neoformalist verse, she rattles off five or so ways that it displays a “lack of clarity” and therefore does not “earn the right” to its “glittery pushpins of language and metaphor” (55). These ways include:
- Obscurity of character. Who is speaking to whom and why? What relation do the characters in the poem hold to each other? […]
- Foggy physical world. Where are we, and why does the poem occur here rather than elsewhere? […]
- Overuse of meaningless references. Many contemporary poets insert perplexingly obscure literary, historical, and artistic allusions, seemingly to impress us with their cleverness and sophistication.
- Metaphors that obscure rather than illuminate. […] In decorative poetry the vehicle may stand clear—the star-studded letter, for instance, in Merrill’s “Serenade”—but the tenor stays out of focus, or the relation between tenor and vehicle cannot be deduced. In fact, many poets fling their metaphors (including similes, synecdoches, etc.) about like so many rhinestones, simply to change tone, and therefore, to muddle key facts.
- Linguistic excess for no good reason. Polysyllables, archaic language, intricate syntax, yards of adjectives—these linguistic ornaments will slow a reader (58-59).
YOU’VE HANDED ME SOMETHING THAT WILL NEVER DRY I’ve lived in almost every room but it’s hard to match the color of your missing piece The barn door is a table I read over My undercoat a cluster of photographs I kept from the fire If I took the museum’s view you would be wood- cut & staring back Scrape of a vintage empire wax & cola How do I explain hiding in the lumberyard as cloth on your knuckles? Your chemical form rises in the photograph I’ve just started mine in tree-turrets in radio germs stacked on cracked tires Were you stained for the same reason? Here is the beauty of using wax & you finished of any age My barn glows not on fire not of glassThe poem is not beholden, documentary-like, to reality, and so it’s possible for the “action” of the poem (action as a series of images, like “montage theory” cuts in early film) to take place in two (or more) settings at once – one a room with a table, another a lumberyard with “tree-turrets.” The lumberyard can exist inside the room as a kind of portal, the way a photograph in a museum gives you a view into another place. Each line or cluster of lines feels like a photograph – a slice of time and space that gestures toward its own history. But the histories themselves are not in the poem, and don’t need to be. If the poem were a puzzle for the reader to decode, “one would no more reread such a poem than one would bother reworking an acrostic already solved” (Karr 51). But this poem does evoke emotion (to me, a sense of desperation of memory), and it does invite re-reading, because there is no answer to the riddle; the incompleteness is part of the point, the undeveloped photograph that will never dry. diorama, or Cornell box) is a good model for a Cohen poem, and her poems are almost anxiety-inducing in their messiness at times. They are cluttered with detail and “stuff,” objects chosen not for their function but for their names and suggestiveness: “bloody paper & the voyeur”; “the luxury pond”; “legroom flyleaf”; “my wooden knife.” There’s a dark but fanciful whimsy that reminds me of Tori Amos lyrics – contrast these Cohen lines from page 47:
Simplicity of the greatest feat: hurt as few as possible Dry the heart’s fog Hold tight & how to let go Valves open close The fullness of a Siberian pear Even in shipwreck we are not aaaaaaamarooned We play host to ghosts daily Mother Father the street sweeperWith these lyrics from “Space Dog” (on Amos’s second album, Under the Pink):
Rain and snow our engines have been receiving Your eager call there's colonel Dirtyfishydishcloth He'll distract her good don't worry so And to the one you thought was on your side She can't understand she truly believes the lie Lemon Pie He's coming through Our commander still Space Dog Lines secure Space Dog Deck the halls I’m young again I'm you again Racing turtles The grapefruit is winning Seems I keep getting this story twisted So where's Neil when you need himNew characters are entering and exiting continuously. There is no one setting. Instead, we enter a fluid dream-space where everyone and everything is morphing, and it’s impossible to tell what is a symbol and what is merely random neuronal firing. But with or without clarity, Cohen’s dream-like, associative verses find room for flashes of wit (“Death is the opposite of dying slowly”) and artistic epiphany (“Now beat back against what you made”). And you emerge from them with feeling. Elisa Gabbert is the author of The Self Unstable (Black Ocean) and The French Exit (Birds LLC). Follow her on Twitter.