Thursday 8 December 2011

Difficulty and obscurity in poetry

In their day Browning and Dylan Thomas were considered notoriously obscure. Poets more recently associated with obscurity include Geoffrey Hill and Prynne. Except for their supposed obscurity these poets have little in common, and according to their proponents, their poetry may merely be difficult rather than obscure. This article covers some issues arising from the terms "difficulty" and "obscurity", looking at how the terms are used by theorists and readers.

In documentation the terms "difficulty" and "obscurity" are often conflated even if initially distinctions are drawn. Let's first consider some common usages of the concept of "obscurity" because they influence the meaning of the literary term.

  • If the moon is obscured by clouds, both the cause of the obscurity and the solution to it (i.e. waiting) are known
  • An obscure fact, or mentions of someone who "fades into obscurity", are hard to find

These usages suggest an obstruction between the object and the observer. There might not be difficulty, complexity or anything unknown. The obscurity isn't considered intrinsic to the work. In general, "obscure" is more derogatory than "difficult". "obscure", unlike "difficult" is a verb as well as an adjective, it's something you can do to a work (and hence potentially undo). It's more likely to be the author's "fault". Problems of perception and communication are more likely to provoke cries of "obscurity" than "difficulty". As William Empson said, "with obscurity ... lack of clarity occurs at the semantic level itself. ... Obscurity is, therefore, different from ambiguity [where there are distinct, disparate but clear meanings], but it can provide the latitude for ambiguity to occur in."

Obscurity is often thought of as unnecessary difficulty, the opposite of "clarity".

  • "All obscure poetry is difficult, but ... not all difficult poetry is obscure. Obscurity is a lack of clarity; it is a flaw....[it] is always a defect" (Shepherd)
  • "Difficulty can be either positive or negative depending on the context in, and the circumstances under which it finds articulation. Obscurity, on the contrary, is almost always negative signifying a failure on the part of the poet due to a complex of variables ranging from incompetence to showiness" (Prof Wimal Dissanayake)
  • "An author is obscure when his conceptions are dim and imperfect, and his language incorrect, inappropriate, or involved" (Coleridge)

A work is difficult when when the reader/viewer feels they don't understand it. This may be because it's obscure. There's often an assumption that a difficult text won't be immediately understood. If it is, the work is more likely to be considered deep or multilayered. The opposite of "difficult" is "accessible", though a difficult piece may be initially accessible if it makes sense a sentence at a time. Such pieces are often described as "deceptively simple" (i.e. not as simple as they look). In contrast, an obscure poem might only be superficially difficult.

The reader's tolerance to difficulty depends on the theory of understanding they adopt. A maths proof, an essay by Heidegger or a Stockhausen symphony assume different modes of comprehension. A single poem can require the use of all of these modes and each mode has its associated brand of difficulty. In some texts (maths, for example), obscurity is unacceptable and difficulty is tolerated - even expected. In contrast, when listening to a melody, obscurity is not an issue. Some poetry readers think that obscurity is unacceptable. Others don't see it as a property to assess the success of a poem by.

The procedures used to impart understanding also affect the reception of "difficult" texts. Should one throw readers (learners) in the deep end, hoping for sudden insight, or should one teach stage by stage? The "sudden insight" approach may exploit obscurity to add an element of surprise.

Defining Difficulty

On Poets Org it says "The taxonomy of difficulty is as vast as the available poetic instances ... There is the difficulty of syntax, reference, image, idea, and metaphysical reach and of course the difficulty inherent in that which is to be expressed."

In "On Difficulty and Other Essays", George Steiner identified 4 categories of difficulty

  • Contingent - solvable by work.
  • Modal - blindspots, category difficulties ("it's not poetry"), reader limitations.
  • Tactical - "source in the writer's will or in the failure of adequacy between his intention and his performative means". "We are not meant to understand easily and quickly". "'Contingently' and 'modally' Wallace Stevens's 'Anecdote of the Jar' is transparent [it has a clear message - ] however simple, the work of art sets ordinance upon the surrounding chaos of the organic [but]" It is the last two lines that obstruct and unsettle ... This rich undecidability is exactly what the poet aims at. It can be made a hollow trick (as it often is with the syntactic instabilities in Dylan Thomas)"
  • Ontological - breaks the poet/reader contract. "At certain levels, we are not meant to understand at all"

In Obscurity and Dylan Thomas's early poetry there's a more thorough attempt at defining difficulty - "A poem is considered difficult if the representation constructed by the reader is defective. Such defective representation is produced when part or all of the potential obstacles in the text, intentional or unintentional, become effective obstacles in the domains of language and/or coherence and/or the world referred to. This means that they disrupt construction of the representation."

The norms being disrupted can be of various types

  • Standard methods of comprehension - "Models of comprehension by van-Dijk and Kintsch, 1983, Kintsch and van-Dijk, 1978, Sanford and Garrod, 1981, Johnson-Laird, 1983) as well as on Miller and Kintsch's study on readability, (1980)"
  • Plain language - "The studies of Steiner (1978) , Nowottny ((1962)1984) and Press (1963) do attempt to come to terms with poetic difficulty as such. The same holds true for Fois-Kaschel (2002) ... These scholars proposed, each in their own way, accounts of textual factors capable of producing difficulty: neologisms, allusions, figures etc."
  • Plain concepts - "Another approach to difficulty is provided by Riffaterre; his description of difficulty is founded on the notion of the matrix, a minimal unity which constitutes the essence of the poem and which is a generator of senses. The poem's significance is produced by the detour the text makes as it runs the gauntlet of mimesis (1984, 19). Difficulties are produced when the matrix is repressed (ibid). The more it is repressed (i.e., implicit) the greater will be the deviation from literal sense."
  • Relevance -"An obscure poem departs from the dynamic that is established between the three components of the act of communication - originator, message and recipient. In a normal act of communication, the originator, aiming at rapid transmission of the message, constructs it in such a way that the recipient needs to make the minimum effort (Sperber and Wilson, 1995). The obscure poem will make radical changes to this relationship."

People have tried to distiguish obscurity from difficulty

  • In After the Death of Poetry: Poet and Audience in Contemporary America Shetley distinguishes difficulty from "obscurity," which he defines as those "elements of language that resist easy semantic processing. ... he uses "difficulty" to refer to both the obscurity of a text and an audience's grappling with it. Shetley expands his theoretical basis to include a discussion of "lucidity," and "lyricism." He borrows these terms from Charles Altieri and uses them to define the split between English and Creative Writing departments. English departments practice lucidity, an enterprise in which theorists draw upon reason to examine (skeptically) or to "demystify" the "subjective, emotive value-laden discourse" of poetry".
  • On Arduity it says "J H Prynne ... has recently made the following distinction between difficulty and obscurity: When poetry is obscure this is chiefly because information necessary for comprehension is not part of the reader's knowledge. ... finding out this information may dispel much of the obscurity. When poetry is difficult this is more likely because the language and structure of its presentation are unusually cross-linked or fragmented, or dense with ideas and response-patterns that challenge the reader's powers of recognition. In such cases extra information may not give much help.
    Both Geoffrey Hill and Prynne combine obscurity and difficulty but they do so in different ways, Hill refers to obscure things (which can be looked up) but his use of language and sturcture are fairly straightforward. Prynne gives much more emphasis to cross-linking and fragmentation but also makes use of obscure references, he also makes this doubly difficult by not marking quotations as quotations so the reader is led further astray.

The Purpose of Difficulty and Obscurity

Poetry seems especially partial to difficulty and obscurity

  • "In poetry, unlike in other forms of discourse, obscurity might be an aesthetic principle; indeed, poetic discourse enjoys a special privilege: it may run counter to the fundamental requirement of language, namely communicability, and may infringe some of the basic rules of language. ... It is able to depart from the requirements of coherence, cohesion and consistency with ideas expressed in the text, or indeed with external knowledge. It does not establish any information known both to the originator and to the recipient that would ensure a grasp of the information that follows (see Clark and Clark, 1977). It will frequently depart from the literal sense of the words that it uses and endow them with new meanings. And despite all this, simply because it is a poem, it will be perceived as a significant text." (Iris Yaron-Leconte)
  • "For the person who reads a poem, obscurity is one of the elements that create 'magic'. Unlike in the case of non-poetic obscure texts, the fact that understanding is deferred is part of the aesthetics of obscurity and this in itself is thus linked to the experience that the poet seeks to create for the reader." (Iris Yaron-Leconte)
  • On "The Meaning of Obscurity" it says "it is quite obvious that if the good poems of our times are stripped of their difficulty - if they are made reader friendly - they would simply lose their relevance as poems at all. To communicate clearly, they need to sustain their obscurity. Obviously we aren't talking about the obscurity born out of lack of knowledge, craft, experience or sensibility but about an obscurity that is painstakingly interwoven with meaning to create a tapestry of overwhelming intricacy."
  • "At the outset, it is only liking, not understanding, that matters. Gaps in understanding ... are not only important, they are perhaps even welcome, like clearings in the woods, the better to allow the heart's rays to stream out without obstacle. The unlit shadows should remain obscure, which is the very condition of enchantment", Breton
  • Difficulty can be used as a change of texture, to control reading speed
  • Difficulty may be the result of Mimesis, a consequence of difficult content ("One encounters in any ordinary day far more real difficulty than one confronts in the most 'intellectual' piece of work. Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are?" - Geoffrey Hill)
  • Difficulty may be the result of characters having complex thought or wanting to hide something.


It might help to have some examples to refer to

  1. "beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella", Comte de Lautréamont
  2. "When once the twilight locks no longer/Locked in the long worm of my finger/Nor dammed the sea that sped about my fist,/ The mouth of time sucked, like a sponge,/ The milky acid on each hinge", Dylan Thomas
  3. Carl Andre's Equivalent VIII
  4. "The sole was amazing"
  5. Hearing "sun" you might think "son" was said. Reading a poorly scribbled "sun" you might read it as "son". If it was written as son you might have trouble reading it at all.

Are these examples difficult or obscure? If you think them obscure it's worth asking WHAT is being obscured? Some readers, when they can't say what the poem's about, say that the meaning they're looking for is obscured. By "meaning" they often mean "moral" or "paraphrase", or even the real-world situation that's supposedly being represented. How might one respond to these examples?

  1. Would this be less obscure were it known that the author's mother was a seamstress and his father was a surgeon? To celebrate his father's first job, his father's mother gave him an umbrella which he used all his life.
    None of this is true as far as I know, but a back-story like this would comfort many readers.
  2. Are the locks made of hair, do they need a key, or are they locks on a canal? There's ambiguity but is there difficulty? In Obscurity and Dylan Thomas's early poetry there's more discussion about this example
  3. This is a minimalist work (a 2 by 6 by 10 pile of 120 bricks) that attracted media attention when it was exhibited in the Tate at London. 'The sensation of these pieces was that they come above your ankles, as if you were wading in bricks', Andre has commented. 'It was like stepping from water of one depth to water of another depth.' Can a minimalist work be obscure or difficult? Can it be complex? Maybe - "Artistic simplicity is more complex than artistic complexity for it arises via the simplification of the latter and against its backdrop or system", Yury Lotman, "Analysis of the Poetic Text", Ardis, 1976,
  4. Suppose the author of this replied "I was in holiday in Italy recently, and it was really hot so I thought I'd use the Italian word for sun in this line." If you then replied "But there's no clue that you're talking about the sun. You didn't even put the word in italics. I thought you were writing about a restaurant meal." has the author any defence?
  5. These examples (handwriting that's "difficult to read", etc) illustrate when signal noise causing a communication problem. Difficulty for which the reader sees no purpose tends to be described as obscurity.

Resolving Difficulty

Not so long ago it was considered inappropriate to assume knowledge of Shakespeare and the Bible. Nowadays we're more tolerant of difficulty - the onus is again on the reader to work harder because

  • It's assumed that Google can resolve allusions
  • Language Poetry (and post-avant/elliptical poetry) has made readers more familiar with radical disruption
  • Reverence for the canon has been replaced by a new hierarchy of institutionalised respect (as much for the living as the dead) within the Creative Writing discipline

Once you know how you extract meaning from a text you're in a position to deduce what you might find "difficult" and whether the term "obscure" has a distinct meaning. Your method of extraction depends on the type of text and the social situation, as does the need to attribute blame and decide how much effort to expend. You may admit ignorance or accuse the Emperor of wearing new clothes. You may need to give yourself an excuse for not spending time analysing the piece.

A difficult piece may be presented as a challenge. A riddle asks the reader to guess the subject. A puzzle may require a further key to unlock the piece (and perhaps reveal further secrets). With both the riddle and the puzzle the reader is likely to know when they've "got it".

A work may require the reader to pass through various stages before reaching the destination. In a whodunit for example, readers follow the plot. This trajectory can be thwarted by

  • making the journey circular - Finnegans Wake's "riverrun"; Harry Potter's new generation meeting at the station in the final pages; a framed story which in turn frames the first story. "And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time" (Little Gidding. Eliot)
  • making the journey hard - Gaps can be left. There may be no intermediate confirmation of hypotheses. "The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects 'unfamiliar', to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception, because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important" - Shklovsky, "Art as Technique"
  • having nothing at the end. In this case the end-orientated journey produces no result, no product. The journey was about process. Pilgrimage has become exile. "And what you thought you came for/Is only a shell, a husk of meaning/From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled/If at all" (Little Gidding. Eliot)

Even if the journey (the unwrapping, the analysis) leads to a conclusion, one never knows for sure whether one's arrived. Whether the work is difficult or obscure, the end of the journey may be a single event or moral, or at its centre there may be an unresolvable juxtaposition of 2 or more items. Perhaps every piece of art must eventually be mysterious or irreducable, so rather than bury this mystery, it might as well be placed on the surface. A typical Magritte painting is an example of the mystery being easy to see. Everything is presented. It cannot be further reduced. "We speak of understanding a sentence in the sense in which it can be replaced by another which says the same; but also in the sense in which it cannot be replaced by any other", Wittgenstein, (Philosophical Investigations, No.531). If you're prepared to understand Magritte you might accept the Comte de Lautréamont quote too, and may in time become sympathetic to Dylan Thomas's offering.


  • "The Chequered Shade: Reflections on Obscurity in Poetry", John Press, London: Oxford University Press, 1963
  • "What Is a Difficult Poem?: Towards a Definition", Iris Yaron-Leconte, Journal of Literary Semantics 37(2) (2008): 129-150.
  • "The Processing of Obscure Poetic Texts: Mechanisms of Selection", Iris Yaron-Leconte, Journal of Literary Semantics 31 (2002): 133-170.
  • "Mechanisms of Combination in the Processing of Obscure Poems", Iris Yaron-Leconte, Journal of Literary Semantics 32 (2003): 151-166.
  • "The Uses of Obscurity", Allon White, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981.
  • "Obscurity in Poetry — A Spectrum" by Geoff Page (from "Southerly")


  1. I am working on a series of articles about Beckett at the moment, his prose as opposed to his poetry but the arguments used in your essay apply just as well to prose. Beckett was notorious in his later works for hacking them away to next to nothing. The very best book on the subject if you have any interest at all in how Beckett wrote is Theatre of Shadows by Rosemary Pountney. It deals primarily with his later drama but not entirely. The chapters devoted to the prose work ‘Lessness’ provide the most detailed analysis of his working methods. The reason I mention the book is because I highlighted a quote I intended to use in one of my articles that is appropriate here since Beckett is (rightly) regarded as both difficult and obscure. It is a quote from John and Beryl Fletcher from their introduction to Fin de partie: “[I]n pruning his work Beckett undoubtedly improved it, but sometimes he compressed things so drastically that the surviving statement is somewhat obscure.” They’re being tactful. Beckett had his own word for it: “vaguening.” Unfortunately he wasn’t one who felt he owed the world much (if any) explanation of his intentions but occasionally he let slip: when Jessica Tandy was complaining about the speed with which she was being asked to deliver her lines Beckett’s response indicated that he hoped that the piece (Not I) would “work on the nerves of the audience, not its intellect.”

    The novelist, Keith Ridgway, also noted: “You can get this feeling of recognition in all the major Beckett works, but the familiar is only implied, if beautifully so, by the author. Space is made for the details, but you bring them yourself.” Once you understand what Beckett is a) providing you with, and, b) what he expects from you then he’s not so taxing but he does expect a lot from his readers. The problem I have with other writers (poets and prosers) is that I don’t know what game they’re playing. I have studied Beckett for some thirty years but at first his writing was as clear as mud to me. That doesn’t mean that I now think everything he wrote was a work of genius. Geniuses can have their off days too. But I defy anyone with an IQ over 150 to take ‘Lessness’ and deduce how Beckett constructed the text without access to his earlier drafts, which Pountney had. Too many difficult and obscure writers (or maybe that should be writers of difficult and obscure works) don’t provide the necessary clues that a reader needs before they pick up the manuscript.

    This does not only apply to the written word. If you’ve ever heard the Holiday Symphony by Charles Ives you will understand where I’m coming from. This is a piece of serious music by a serious composer and people sat in the audience with serious faces and serious expectations and mostly didn’t get it. They didn’t realise he was having fun. They had forgotten that classical music could be fun and missed the point completely as would I had I not seen a TV documentary about the man which dramatised what was going on in the piece.

    Enjoyed this. Particularly appreciated the Wittgenstein quote— "We speak of understanding a sentence in the sense in which it can be replaced by another which says the same; but also in the sense in which it cannot be replaced by any other"—although since I don’t think that any sentence ever does the job we’d like it to—language always falls short—I’m not sure his argument helps.

  2. "I am working on a series of articles about Beckett at the moment" - I'll look forward to them. I like Godot and the end of Malone Dies. The rest is usually a struggle for me.

    "The problem I have with other writers (poets and prosers) is that I don't know what game they're playing" - sometimes the game is "guess the game"