Is complexity necessary in a poem?
In George Herbert’s great poem “A Wreath,” to my eyes the greatest and most moving moment happens when the phrase “Give me simplicity” breaks into a syntax that is anything but simple. This syntax both embodies and tries to make order out of “our crooked winding ways,” how everything we experience is a labyrinth because we ourselves are deceit. Everything is connected to everything but we experience the connections as paradox and darkness. Out of this comes the plea for simplicity--simplicity that only a power more than human (for Herbert, God) can show us is more fundamental than the wilderness of feeling, of deception tied to deception, that is our experience of ourselves. Herbert’s poems again and again enact this coming into a sudden awareness of fundamental simplicity: think of the ending of “The Collar” or “Love III.”
But these endings have their meaning and power because what has gone before, Herbert’s rendering of our experience and desire, is not simple. One of the marks, for me, of the greatest literature, is the brilliant simple statement that comes out of a verbal texture that is its opposite: think of “Beauty is the beginning of terror” in Rilke’s “Duino Elegies,” or “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” in Eliot’s “Gerontion.” These “simple” statements (and I think one feels Eliot’s question as a statement) don’t flatten or reduce the complexity around them, but are a brief clearing that leads one to the next thicket.
I love Dudley Fitts’ little book of free translations, “Poems from the Greek Anthology” (New Directions, 1956). So many of these brief poems stand as an ideal of eloquence, of cutting-through to something utterly elemental, that almost no (perhaps no) contemporary poetry possesses. Here is an example:
And another, also by Anonymous:
Lyrics at the beginning of a tradition at their best have this enviable I-am-only-going-to-say-the-most-fundamental-things simplicity. So often later this impulse turns into boring epigrammatic put-downs, or sentimental reductiveness. What is crucial to notice in Fitts’ versions is that this simplicity is not the opposite of complexity, not at the cost of complexity. In the first poem, after “Never having married” one expects mourning for all the things that “never happened” in this life; instead, Dionysios mourns that life itself ever happened. The second poem is about how the dog’s “master” is not the master. Directness and simplicity cut deep into an earth that is not simple. The art here is in the marriage of opposites.
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