Mystery in Poetry

23 October 2019 on Blog, Storystorm  

Maybe it’s because it’s autumn now—it’s darker out and the neighbors' Halloween decorations are up and all the tourists have gone home so the seacoast is hushed—but I’m thinking about mystery and what’s not seen in poetry.

People have talked about this in other terms. Obscurity versus clarity. Clear versus confusing. Everyone has their own preferences in terms of mystery in poetry and these tastes change over time. Some readers enjoy clear, easy poems, while others like a challenge. Some people like poems for sound more than a clear “meaning," and they’re okay with more obscurity. Writers have their own tastes too. Some care more about reader accessibility, while others like more mystery. 

I believe the best poems are somewhere in the middle—not too clear, not too confusing. You can follow something narratively or emotionally, but just enough so there is still this element of the unknowable. Things aren’t explicitly stated, but rather hinted at, skipped over, and we make a connection in the act of jumping. There’s a little mystery. 

And although that’s what I prefer to read, it is what I struggle with most when writing my own poems. I sometimes write poems too clear, too on the nose and in your face— saying hey reader look, this is a poem about loss! Or I am too obscure, too fragmented, sound and image driven and my readers can’t follow or find any meaning. And then what’s the point in sharing it, if it’s just for me and no one else can feel something in it?

There has to be something that makes some kind of sense (even if it’s emotional sense rather than a clear meaning). And yet, I don’t want a poem fully spelled out, that leaves nothing to the reader. There has to be balance. 

What I’m working on now is leaving footprints, emotional footprints. I picture this as a beach. It’s fall so the beach is empty. I want to get to the rocks at the far north side of the beach. Ideally, my reader would get over there with me.

In the past I’ve held my reader’s hand, and said, come with me I will get you there, way over there safely. I’ve even dragged them along. No one likes that. Or I’ve run ahead, run wild all around my own poetry beach which is fun and exhilarating but guess what? No one could follow me if they wanted to, so readers stayed back somewhere in the first verse, thinking oh that’s a nice image, but nothing else.

What I’m trying to do now is leave enough footprints so my reader doesn’t see me with a big sign waving and air traffic controlling them to my little jetty. Rather they’ll, hopefully, see some footprints that almost seem accidental, gently showing them somewhere. Who knows, maybe they diverge at the end and go to the rock next to mine. Maybe they don’t end up at my “meaning” and that’s fine. But with enough to follow at least they went somewhere. At least they got something out of it. 

I want the reader to sense that I am there. But I want to be a little out of sight, just around the next jetty perhaps, present, but a little bit mysterious. 

Johnna St Cyr is Barnstorm's Poetry Editor and a second-year MFA student at the University of New Hampshire.

No Comments Yet

Leave a Comment
error: Content is protected !!