should poetry and prose make sense?


Here are 5 reasons to make your writing incomprehensible—

  • impenetrable words allow the reader to focus on the prosody
  • mystification creates enigmas, unresolved mystery
  • if the meaning is obscured the reader can invent their own
  • writing that doesn’t make sense is more likely to be original, less likely to feel familiar
  • life makes very little sense—to me at least—so why should writing?

I confess that my writing advice is pretty much self-serving because I enjoy reading stuff I don’t understand. Admittedly I would have preferred not to have been baffled by the instructions that came with my atomic vegetable processor, even though the blast radius was quite small.

But in fiction, as opposed to non-fiction, you do have a choice—

Were vagueness enough and the sweet lies plenty,
The hollow words could bear all suffering
And cure me of ills.

—Dylan Thomas, Out of the Sighs.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe.

—Lewis Carroll, Jabberwocky.


your guess is as good as mine

35 thoughts on “should poetry and prose make sense?

    • You’re welcome. I might be advocating for the hornéd one a bit here, just for fun. Next–the case against punctuation :-). I do have to say ‘Stop Making Sense’ was definitely a Talking Heads classic.

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    • Thanks. Best to be cautious with anything that makes sense. In any case you’re perfectly safe as long as you don’t follow my advice 8-).

    • I agree completely, atmosphere is important. Sometimes I write in Klingon when the scene is a planet in the Klingon Empire, although maybe that’s going a bit far 🙂 .

  3. What I learned at great expense from writing classes–write from the heart and don’t hold back. Since then I’ve had stacks of short stories rejected by publishers. Every rejection still hurts a bit, but I have a glass of wine, burn the rejection letter and move on to the next piece :). Not courage, alcohol and not dwelling on failure. So you know what I’d say …

    • I was told to write for an audience. I only scribble poems and stories for my own amusement. However, I can see the point of focusing on the reader.

    • Hi Graham, yes, it make sense, although I think you do much more than scribble, and anyway it’s good to enjoy whatever writing you do.

      Problem for me is that I write very slowly and it just happens. I see writing for an audience as requiring a degree of finesse that I don’t possess. So I just hope there might be an audience, Martians perhaps 🙂 .

  4. Hi Steve. Interesting example with the Jabberwock. What Carroll has done is to weave his faux language into a rhythm that can carry a reader without necessarily comprehending each element or each word. I think almost everyone that reads it finds familiarity, despite the composed wording.

    Where I stumble is when a piece is deliberately incomprehensible, and so much contemporary work seems to be. My own view is that there is room for plenty of whimsy, and for plenty of chal;lenge as well, but that poetry does itself a disservice if it is written to be deliberately vague.

    Personally, I like what I read to be able to be understood and what I write for myself to be able to be responded to by the chap/chappess down the road that ‘isn’t into poetry, but …’ is stimulated by what he/she sees in something I have put up.

    It’s a bugbear of mine that so much contemporary poetry goes out of it’s way to be incomprehensible.



    • I agree, and I certainly have enough problems without being intentionally unintelligible :). Non-fiction is a bit different, but one thing I’ve learned from experience is that it doesn’t matter whether the audience (readers or listeners) understands something or not. What matters is that they think they understand ;).

  5. I’ve always tried to make my poetry make sense because otherwise, it sounds like nonsense and not good enough to be published. But I might give what you said a try because I think readers like figuring out if they can make sense of what a poem means for themselves.

    • Yes, poems aren’t facts, and mostly facts aren’t facts either, as far as I can tell. I was taught ‘write from the heart’ and ‘don’t hold back.’ I still don’t know what that means but I’m pretty sure it includes giving it a go :).

  6. what a refreshing thought. Love this way of looking at poetry and creative writing in general.
    I think the audiences’ reactions complete any work of art after all 🙂

    • Thank you, Singledust, glad you enjoyed. That’s a lovely thought. Maybe when you don’t understand yourself, it’s coming from the subconscious, hiding beneath the superficial consciousness that we think we are. Here’s a confession. When I write, I don’t do much conscious thinking at all, and when I read the comments, I sometimes think, “Oh yeah, that’s what it means, that’s what it’s about.” 😃

      Maybe the world is logical, but for me, people usually aren’t, and to be honest I don’t mind feeling a bit alien. I think I’ve managed to come to terms with who I am, at least to some extent.

    • Haha! I get that often, when someone makes a comment and I go like, yes that was what I meant, thank you for making it clear to me now! I thank you for your confession, its rare to want to reveal our trade secrets, people do think writers sit and ponder over things before it gets spilled. But in reality its just going with the flow of the subconscious. I like to feel I am going with a feeling never a thought, when the feeling envelops itself around the fingers that hit away hard, the thoughts assemble the words.

      I work in a very logical environment and at times that can be very hurtful on the emotions so reading is my escape and writing away to release the pressure build up. Its a struggle to be in two worlds especially in my head. People and logic escape me every time, I think logical people just use logic to get their own selfish way anyway. I rather be illogical but kind.

      I appreciate your thoughts very much and thank you for taking the time to explain them, its good to know feeling alien can result in such amazing collection of poetry and prose we get to read from you.

    • Thanks so much for the sharing and the insight, Gina. 💚 I agree completely, including about writing: it’s a wonderful release that can bring something to other people. My work is also logical, currently the neurophysiology research, but now I think I have a slightly better understanding of heart and head than I used to. People cannot and should not try to be completely logical, otherwise they will lose their humanity and become monsters. I think to believe you are logical, as I once did, is dangerous, because if we deny that we have a heart (emotions) it will have an even stronger hold over us for good and bad, and we will still think that we are being logical. As you say, kindness and empathy make us human, even in the face of difficulties.

      A pleasure to read your perceptive opinions, and thank you again.💚

    • you have such a compassionate view of mankind, I think I am too jaded, I want to believe the goodness but some days, evil is so prevalent, the air feels singed with malevolence. Those monsters do exist but glad to know there are kind souls like you battling for good. i have seen people deny that goodness about themselves because they don’t want to appear weak and I ache to think of the feelings and healing emotions they are denying themselves.

      i work in radiation physics specifically in cancer treatments, and balancing logic with empathy can be the most challenging part of the job.

      lovely chatting Steve. and thank you too for listening.

    • I’m not sure why I haven’t read this earlier, but I really relate to this conversation you are having…and I wonder about the interaction of the conscious with the subconscious and the different parts of our brains. My husband’s thoughts are so compartmentalised, and mine come from all over, so I relate to writing and not knowing necessarily where I am going at first! And to other people pointing out things to me in my own writing. haha

  7. Steve, you enjoy reading stuff you don’t understand? I carried T.S. Eliot around for years, fascinated by the incomprehensibility. I’ve only read your stuff recently. It is laser sharp for the intellect. I’m surprised that you seem to like my stuff which is simple, direct and certainly not as colourful as your work. I will look forward now to catching up with you, past, present and future. It will be an exciting journey. Thank you. Keep writing.

    • Thanks Margaret, I’m flattered, even though I don’t see my own work that way. 😃 There are a lot of different audiences out there. I do enjoy what I don’t understand, but also this post was meant to be a little provocative. What I like comes from the heart, has something to say, avoids clicheed ideas, and resonates with me. Like carpentry 😄 . I don’t want to be negative, but it isn’t that easy to find. So you too, please keep poeting.

  8. I’m struggling with this question right now. I submitted my fiction piece to a literary journal already, but i just re-read the story and realized there is a glaring inconsistency in the opening section. I start the piece talking about how there are blinds over the window and it’s unclear what is outside, but then a little later i say “i looked outside at the waxing moon”…it doesn’t make sense.

    • I don’t really know without seeing it, but I think that, in general, you don’t need to write down everything that character does, i.e., if some other actions are needed, they don’t necessarily need to be mentioned.

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