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Published: Thu Dec 10 2015
Eva Lundsager, A Pause (detail), 2021, oil on canvas
Poetic Complexity vs. Poetic Complication

In one of his penetrating essays, W.H. Auden suggests that among other things poetry should take utterly complex matters and render them in language precise enough to make them apprehensible. At 73, I’m old enough not to care anymore what the smart and hip people think, so am at ease in saying that too many of our poets nowadays seem to have this exactly backwards. If I may paraphrase another giant, Friedrich Nietzsche, some thinkers muddy the waters in order to make them look deep.

This is neither a plea nor an apology for simplism. When I talk about poetry in my visits to libraries as Vermont Poet Laureate, I contend that what lyric can accomplish—I’d say in a way that other modes of discourse ordinarily cannot—is the simultaneous dramatization of a number of emotions, thoughts, and impulses, in one frame, no matter some are flatly contradictory of one another. To that extent, though of course as a practitioner I am biased, the lyric poem seems to me our most effective mode of demonstrating how the mind actually works.

That mind, after all, does not always operate in an entirely consecutive manner. Logic and ratiocination are cultivated skills, and although they do serve us well in many instances, they are helpless, I think, to render that simultaneity and often that contradictoriness in deep human response.

One of my predecessors as Vermont Poet Laureate, Ellen Bryant Voigt, has lately received a Macarthur “genius” fellowship, and her work exemplifies the values I’ve tried to promote during my tenure. At each of the hundred-plus community libraries I visited during my Laureate’s tenure, I applauded poems whose virtues, like Ellen’s, include memorable language, acute ear, formal aptness and, yes, accessibility without reductiveness. Ms. Voigt is deep indeed in all these respects; she never needs to feign depth by that muddying of the surface.

I suspect Ellen would agree that no writer can be confident in his or her lifetime of having genius, but from the first time I encountered Ellen’s poetry forty years ago, it seemed that if any of my contemporaries had that quality, it was she. One earlier work that especially stunned me was Kyrie, a book-length sonnet sequence that deals with the lives of people confronted by the horrific influenza epidemic, which was contemporaneous with and, astonishingly, even more deadly than the First World War. Kyrie was well reviewed when it appeared twenty years back, but it still seems to me a neglected book of poetry, though to say as much sounds almost redundant. I urge you to seek it out (though you won’t be disappointed by any Voigt collection you choose, including her dazzling most recent, Headwaters). Here’s an older poem by her hand:


Whenever my mother, who taught
small children forty years,
already knew the answer.
“Would you like to” meant
you would. “Shall we” was
another, and “Don’t you think.”
As in “Don’t you think
it’s time you cut your hair.”

So when, in the bare room,
in the strict bed, she said,
“You want to see?” her hands
were busy at her neckline,
untying the robe, not looking
down at it, stitches
bristling where the breast
had been, but straight at me.

I did what I always did:
not weep—she never wept—
and made my face a kindly
whitewashed wall, so she
could write, again, whatever
she wanted there.

Note in “Lesson,” for example, the inevitably mixed feelings one might harbor with respect to so strong a mother as the one in “Lesson.” Again the feelings are contemporaneous.

In Voigt’s account, I’d suggest, we are called upon to admire the sturdiness and lack of self-pity on the part of the recuperating parent, even as we may feel the degree to which those very qualities might have constituted longtime burdens for her child to bear. In our age, when the forthright expression of feeling seems to be all but sacred, the woman in the “strict bed” (how deftly Voigt chooses that figure!) appears to dissuade the speaker from it. And yet is not the mother’s undauntedness at least an equally important value to her daughter’s self-voicing? And mustn’t we, like the writer, acknowledge authority in a woman who “taught small children/forty years” even as one can feel the discomfiture here in the poet’s continuing to be treated in some respects as a small child herself? There may be a degree of condescension in the lesson the older woman passes on, but I sense something exemplary in it too.

Further: when Voigt refers to her mother’s “strict bed,” can’t we recognize that that mother is now enduring her own set of strictures, her disease being no respecter of personality or accomplishment and old habits of mind dying hard in any event? These things alone should allow us to cut her some slack, as the saying goes. Don’t we likewise have more than one understanding of the speaker’s face when she describes it as “a kindly/whitewashed wall…”? We may regret that the speaker feels the need to put on a mask, to be less than “genuine”; on the other hand, there is genuine kindness in her very act of self-disguise.

So Ellen is a complex poet, all right, which is far from being merely complicated, a quality that may distinguish her from too many of her contemporaries. Like Robert Frost, her predecessor as Vermont’s state poet, she offers the reader a way into her poems. Everyone can get something out of them. The numbers of things available, however, are as infinitely extensible as the human sensibility itself.

Sydney Lea is the author of twenty-four books: a novel, five volumes of personal essays, three of critical essays, and fifteen poetry collections, including the forthcoming What Shines (Four Way Books, 2024). A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and winner of the Poets’ Prize, he is founding editor of New England Review. He served as Vermont’s poet laureate from 2011 to 2015, and in 2021, he received the state’s most prestigious arts distinction: the Governor’s Award for Excellence. (updated 4/2023)

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