And here you might be thinking: Utopic as that all sounds, surely Michael Farrell’s 37 would be a challenge for even the most enthusiastic of poetry cheerleaders. Perhaps.
Before I launch into my own cheer for this poem, I first have to consider the possibility that 37 is not meant to be taken seriously. To do this, I must kick over a rock many would probably rather leave untouched.
Geoff Page’s 2014 Southerly article ‘Obscurity in Poetry – A Spectrum’ ignited plenty of debate – enough that reiterating it here feels if not redundant, at least distracting. In short, Page outlined ‘a spectrum of obscurity which may be divided loosely into eight categories’, from ‘Desirable or Essential Obscurity’ to ‘Wilful obscurity’.1 While a key paragraph including Page’s reading of a poem from Farrell’s open sesame has been deleted since publication (still available in Sydney Review of Books), the article’s comments remain intact.
The final word went to a user with the handle ‘obscurator’ who outlined eight ‘clarities’ in response to Page’s spectrum. The fifth gives what could be a clue for the origin of 37:
5. Clarity in lexical segmentivities and/or linguistic faceting:
Of the kind sometimes practiced by Michael Farrell. Breaking down words into tinier and tinier segments, with line-breaks, crypt-words, and unconventional syntactic arrangements. But in doing so, getting to the roots of words, inside words and even inside letters, you start seeing the stark clarity of signifiers in their sparkling glint on the page. But you don’t stop at letters. You start burrowing down even further, into shards of punctuation, estranging diacritical elements from their place beside words. Ah, Michael!
As a routinely late-to-the-party reader, I did not notice this comment until after I had read 37 – just four years late. Perhaps this connection borders on the conspiratorial, but ‘obscurator’ appears to describe exactly what 37 is. Could it be that Farrell took up the challenge to create a poem from ‘shards of punctuation’? Does this mean 37 is, more than anything, a sly wink to readers familiar with Page’s article and the ensuing debate? If so, does this part of the poem’s story matter when it comes to our response?
37 has no words, though its long lines of underscores invite the insertion of words. It has no apparent structure, though the repetition of certain combinations of marks suggests the possibility of structure. Its shape seems dictated by the shape of the page, suggesting a prose poem, yet any discernible patterns of prose are elusive. Despite its impenetrability, I am confident there is more to be found here than ‘shards of punctuation’.
To finally answer my friend’s request, my response is this: 37 is a completely open poem. By resisting language so absolutely, the poem is open to as many interpretations as it has readers. It tempts us to write our own words, to create our own poem in between its marks. And even if this poem does not expect to be taken seriously, it is so open as to include that possibility as well.
It’s here that I lose the majority of the friends, family members, colleagues and other acquaintances who make the mistake of asking me for advice on ‘getting into poetry’. Who wants to invest in an art form without concrete answers? Art that refuses to say what it means? Art that confuses, or worse, sets out to confuse? It is in these moments that I realise I am no Al Filreis. My cheerleading, heartfelt as it may be, comes without the requisite authority. I can no more be a defender of poetry than I can be its saviour or its destroyer.
But if I did hold that authority for a few moments, I would argue that poetry does offer what ‘regular people’ are looking for. Even ‘difficult’ poems hold at least as many answers, and as much meaning and clarity, as one might find in any given news feed, traffic snarl, protest march or trip through a supermarket self-checkout. Poetry makes as much sense as love does, or grief or hope or loneliness. It is big enough to include the meaningful and the meaningless. It is strong enough to exist without defenders.
- Geoff Page, ‘Obscurity in Poetry – A Spectrum’, Southerly, online. ↩