on poems suspicious of meaning

from “Association in Poetry” by Carl Phillps in his essay collection The Coin of the Realm. Emphasis is mine.

Part of the point in the associative poem is that the reader should be unsettled, should not know at first what to make of what has been read. As poets, when we liken X to Y—unless we are resorting to cliche—we are presumably the first to have made such a connection. Which means it may not be immediately intelligible to the reader—but it should be eventually accessible. Otherwise, we are guilty of a self-indulgence that, it seems to me, mars much contemporary American poetry, producing work that calls itself oblique or mysterious or vatic, when in fact it is merely obfuscated, not very well thought-out, is suspicious of meaning, and privileges the arty over art itself. However, when applied successfully, the associative method makes for a poetry that demands—both of poet and reader—that the mind be athletic, not just able to negotiate the leaps, but able to find in such leaps restorative vigor that is among the pleasures of reading great poetry.


Yusef Komunyakaa “Back Then”

I’ve eaten handfuls of fire
back to the bright sea
of my first breath
riding the hipbone of memory
& saw a wheel of birds
a bridge into the morning
but that was when gold
didn’t burn out a man’s eyes
before auction blocks
groaned in courtyards
& nearly got the best of me
that was when the spine
of every ebony tree wasn’t
a pale woman’s easy chair
black earth-mother of us all
crack in the bones & somber
eyes embedded like beetles
in stoic heartwood
seldom have I needed
to shake a hornet’s nest
from the breastplate
fire over the ground
pain tears me to pieces
at the pottery wheel
of each dawn
an antelope leaps
in the heartbeat
of the talking drum