My friend the poet and publisher Micheal Schmidt once told me that he liked poetry that was made up of simple words. "Sex, love, food... the vital things are simple words," he said to me (or something like that). I took his point, and certainly agree that it isn't obscure vocabulary that makes e.g. the late Beckett such a vital (and challenging) read. But should we always eschew the arcane? And is it arcane to write "arcane" when I could have written "difficult"? Wrong to have written "eschew" when I could have said "avoid"? It surely isn't always sesquipedelian ostentation to use the multisyllabic when the monosyllabic would have fitted almost as well - is it? (Surely only a sesquipedelian ever invokes the term sesquipedelian.) Isn't the abstruse sometimes the more accurate? The recondite might not be as recognisable, but it might be the more rigorous; simple might simplify to the point of becoming wrong, complex might be confounding but absolutely correct (now, is "absolutely correct" a pleonasm? Oh, bother!) Isn't the move from "fitted almost as well" to "fitted exactly" the move from a basic to more a complex vocabulary? Well, not always, for sure...

Beckett's Proust was written in 1931, when he was 25 years old, and exhibits the sort of language use one might expect from a precociously gifted academic rather than a poet. The poetry of the later work, when Beckett showed us impotence, futility, loss, has shorn its lexicon of flash, academic jargon: Worstward Ho is far, far from simple, but its difficulty doesn't arise from tricky terminology. His prose, now, is exactly as Michael would like it: simple words directing us towards vital things (and non-things, of course: to the unsayable). Still, between the baby-language of the modern media and the blistering, elementary severity and clarity of Beckett, there does lie a place where being wordy is surely just about ok. I'd guess that even Michael would want me to know the difference between disinterested and uninterested, whilst expecting me to be neither with regard to sex, love, food... and poetry.

Readers Comments

  1. No intelligent reader would ever dream of saying that prose should be made up of only simple words; why poetry? As a poet, I find these pronouncements are simply insufferable. Think I'll go read some Paul Muldoon now, thanks.

  2. Mark Thwaite Monday 04 May 2009

    "No intelligent reader would ever dream of saying that prose should be made up of only simple words; why poetry?" You're right. And that is why I didn't say that. And nor did Michael Schmidt whom I quoted. Perhaps before you go off and read Paul Muldoon you should slow down and read a little more carefully; if you don't, you aren't going to get very much from Mr Muldoon!

  3. Sorry for getting outraged without first acknowledging your lovely (witty) post. It's just that plenty of *American* poets do believe that poems should use simple vocabulary, esp. on the Objectivist/Black Mountain front (Creeley influenced by the theory of Basic English, etc.). It becomes another reified scheme for "real" poetry, which Schmidt's comment plays into whether he meant to universalize it or not. Sorry again for the outrage sans explanation.

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