Fewer Jellyfish: Jack Underwood on Poetry and Uncertainty

The French Alps, a Scottish island, a breezy, autumnal lake in the USA . . . These all came back to mind* as I read Jack Underwood’s just-published essay ‘On Poetry and Uncertain Subjects’ (Poetry Review, Winter 2017). To be clear, I am sympathetic to the general drift of his argument, his interest in language and epistemology and his enthusiasm for poetry as contributing a necessary part of our understanding of the world. But Underwood is too disparaging about language (it’s most of what we’ve got) and this leads to his own imprecision with it (because words don’t yield the whole truth doesn’t mean we should use them carelessly). I wish he’d given better examples of what he is urging poets to pursue (so I’ve included one below) and I’m horrified that he recommends vague, woolly raptures (fog and smudge) to poets rather than genuine provisionality and uncertainty reflected in language that is sceptically self-aware.



Starting from a remembered childhood scene, Underwood argues, as his title suggests, that poetry is an area of discourse which both highlights and thrives on epistemological uncertainty. Such uncertainties arise firstly from “the innate inaccuracy of language as a system that cannot catch or hold onto anything securely”. In a postmodern world, this hardly makes headlines, but the hyperbolic expression is too much, given that language gets me through most of my days reasonably well; it has to be grasping something. A second uncertainty arises from the poet’s raw material – particularly the “gunk of unconscious activity” – all of which is subjective and unstable because any meaning/knowledge is actually a concept only associated with human perception and not something corresponding to a universe existent apart from human perception. Hence, in the end, Underwood argues, “all of meaning and knowledge is apprehended, expressed and configured unstably [. . .] a shoal of jellyfish”.


Except that mostly it is not. Surprisingly for a poet, Underwood doesn’t take the potency of language seriously enough, in particular the way the words we use have the habit of becoming idolatrous (in the sense used by Owen Barfield); they can determine how we see, think and feel. Here’s a pretty, remembered scene of my own: in the French Alps above the Trois Vallees, the woven steel cables of chair lifts hang quite still during the night and the cold air seals them in icy sheaths. Come morning, when the engines whir into action at either end of the lifts, the cables suddenly tense and jump, brought to life, and in doing so they shuck off their icy jackets. The frozen moisture cracks, fragments and detaches from the cables. Down it falls into the snow to print a strange hieroglyphic language in a neat line up the mountainside, looking something like this:















– `

I bet the locals have a word for this modern phenomenon. But from above, it looks like a language in which nothing is cursive (and life tends to the cursive, is always diverging from the linear). This icy steel cable language is – I’d suggest and Underwood would agree – like much of our everyday language use, mostly false. Yet it does possess a certain utilitarian precision, enough to perform its functions within broad criteria. But if our wish is to be more precise, to say something difficult to grasp, a more unusual observation, something more emotionally cursive, then we have to choose our words more carefully, put them together in a different sort of way: we have to unsettle them, bend them, occasionally find new ones, revive old ones in new contexts.


Surprisingly, Underwood’s response to this difficulty is to recommend poets use language which is “foggier” than we might ordinarily use, or language that has been calculatedly blurred or aspires to a kind of “smudging”. This simply doesn’t square with most people’s feelings about poetry which is that it tends to clarify experience rather than ‘smudge’ it. The truth is that we need to respond to language’s limits by working harder with language not neglecting it. Underwood would do well to read Robert Macfarlane’s book, Landmarks (Hamish Hamilton, 2015), which passionately argues against the loss of regional, place-specific language, a loss which means we are progressively perceiving natural landscapes in fewer dimensions, slipping into an ever more abstract, narrow, linear understanding of experience. Macfarlane argues that “Language deficit leads to attention deficit” and perhaps Underwood would agree but Macfarlane grasps that we do not liberate ourselves from the tyranny of language by using it vaguely, but ever more precisely. In Landmarks, he is concerned that the Oxford Junior Dictionary of 2007 deletes heron, ivy, kingfisher, pasture and willow among many other words considered irrelevant in reflecting the “consensus experience of modern-day childhood”. The word blackberry has been replaced by Blackberry.


And this is no narrow Cambridge academic’s concern. Macfarlane also tells the story of the proposed building of a vast wind farm on Brindled Moor on the Isle of Lewis in 2004: 234 wind turbines, each 140 metres high, 5 million cubic metres of rock and 2.5 million cubic metres of peat excavated and displaced. The debate centred around “the perceived nature and worth of the moor”. Proponents discussed it as a “wasteland”, a “wilderness”, a “vast, dead place”. Opponents – including 80% of the island’s inhabitants – argued for the fecund particularity of the moor. Tellingly, part of the defence was lexical in the shape of a Gaelic ‘Peat Glossary’ – hundreds of words describing the subtle features and moods of what is clearly no “dead place” at all. Macfarlane links this “Counter-Desecration Handbook” to poets like Hugh MacDiarmid and Norman MacCaig but it also reminds me of Blake’s insight: “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way”.

Underwood and I would agree that the man who sees only a “green thing” is suffering a lack of poetry – a limitation or failure of perception which is also a failure of linguistic precision. I think of it as an example of that icy steel cable language in the French Alps which falls (or more dangerously is handed down – this is where politics enters the debate) from on high, from some remote, cold place, handed down into our lives and so it begins to determine how we see the world. I share Underwood’s sense of urgency and importance that it is for those who concern ourselves with language and try to scrutinize our relations to the other, to others, to ourselves, to re-double our efforts to make further brief, individual Counter-Desecration Handbooks, to tell what we see as the truths of our lives as accurately as possible. Whatever form they may take, let’s call the resulting texts ‘poems’ and take inspiration finally from a marvellous one by the American poet, David Ferry.


Jack Underwood

Here, Ferry’s poem can also act as an illustration of several of Underwood’s comments about poetry. He suggests poems convey meanings beyond the “sharper constraints” of everyday language. By “sharper” he surely means narrower and more meanly delimited and Ferry’s poem illustrates that a quite different sharpness (a vividness from the cleansing of the doors of perception) is something poetry does well and yields pleasure for the reader. The poem doesn’t contradict Underwood’s suggestion that we know when we are reading poetry because of its formal qualities, its frequent use of metaphor, its preference for connotation as opposed to denotation. Our acquaintance with the poem certainly sets us “wondering” (Underwood’s rather foggy word) about what we are reading and it suggests and explicitly discusses “a resistance to finality in language”. I don’t think Underwood’s own examples help illustrate his point; I think Ferry’s poem does, confirming how poetry can be the “prime medium for the articulation of our knowledge of the unknown” (Underwood).


Ferry’s original poetry has long flourished in the shadow of his translation work but his collection, Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations (University of Chicago Press, 2012) won the National Book Award. In the UK, his selected poems are published as On This Side of the River (Waywiser Press, 2012). In fluidly, cursively, yet precise language, ‘Lake Water’ brilliantly conveys Ferry’s attentiveness to the world’s presence without losing a sense of the provisional nature of both self and other, the root inscrutabilities of experience (one of Underwood’s main points). There is a pressure exerted in favour of clarity and truth to both inner and outer worlds.

Ferry kicks off with specificity: “a summer afternoon in October”, the narrator gazing at a lake. The opening 20 lines, even as they evoke the light, the shimmer of water, the trees, engage in continual re-interpretations via similes (“As if it were a shimmering of heat”; “as if the air / Had entirely given itself over to summer”) and revisions (“Or rather”; “Or from”) until, in the final lines of this opening passage, paradox seems the only way to encapsulate the experience: “The light / Is moving and not moving upon the water”.

The second section of ‘Lake Water’ reaffirms this process, the perception of the lake “compelling with sweet oblivious / Authority alterations in light and shadow”. Earlier the water had evoked “something infantile [. . .] a baby at the breast” but now – in a progress from innocence to experience – the slapping of the water is “decidedly sexual”. The lake water, at one with the whole process of perceiving it, has become “an origination of life”. The lake surface is “like a page” or “like an idea for a poem not yet written”, or equivocally the “surface of the page is like lake water” before a mark has been made on it. What seeks to be written down is elusive partly as the result of the ambivalent gifts of time: “all my language about the lake [. . . ] erased with the changing of the breeze”.


Ferry saves a poignant twist for the final 6 lines which record a death-bed scene; he watches his wife – distinguished literary scholar, Anne Ferry – who died in 2006. After the moment of her passing, her face is “as untelling” as the lake, “unreadable”, though Ferry clings to and at once denies a last hope: “Her mouth was open as if she had something to say; / But maybe my saying so is a figure of speech”. For all their elegance and plain-speaking, Ferry’s best poems are marvellously unstable, bravely eschewing the linear, poignantly facing up to the limits of the faulty equipment we are given to grasp the world. Elsewhere, Ferry gently devastates with the idea that “death lives in the intention of things / To have a meaning”. Other poets might advocate fogs and smudge, or be reduced to silence, or rip language to shreds, or resort to an icy words, the dead counters of the pre-conceived at this, but Ferry’s provisional songs instruct, console and are to be much admired.

Listen to David Ferry reading ‘Lake Water’ here.

Lake Water

It is a summer afternoon in October.

I am sitting on a wooden bench, looking out

At the lake through a tall screen of evergreens,

Or rather, looking out across the plane of the lake,

Seeing the light shaking upon the water

As if it were a shimmering of heat.

Yesterday, when I sat here, it was the same,

The same displaced out-of-season effect.

Seen twice it seemed a truth was being told.

Some of the trees I can see across the lake

Have begun to change, but it is as if the air

Had entirely given itself over to summer,

With the intention of denying its own proper nature.

There is a breeze perfectly steady and persistent

Blowing in toward shore from the other side

Or from the world beyond the other side.

The mild sound of the little tapping waves

The breeze has caused—there’s something infantile

About it, a baby at the breast. The light

Is moving and not moving upon the water.


The breeze picks up slightly but still steadily,

The increase in the breeze becomes the mild

Dominant event, compelling with sweet oblivious

Authority alterations in light and shadow,

Alterations in the light of the sun on the water,

Which becomes at once denser and more quietly

Excited, like a concentration of emotions

That had been dispersed and scattered and now were not.

Then there’s the mitigation of the shadow of a cloud,

And the light subsides a little, into itself.

Although this is a lake it is as if

A tide were running mildly into shore.

The sound of the water so softly battering

Against the shore is decidedly sexual,

In its liquidity, its regularity,

Its persistence, its infantile obliviousness.

It is as if it had come back to being

A beginning, an origination of life.


The plane of the water is like a page on which

Phrases and even sentences are written,

But because of the breeze, and the turning of the year,

And the sense that this lake water, as it is being

Experienced on a particular day, comes from

Some source somewhere, beneath, within, itself,

Or from somewhere else, nearby, a spring, a brook,

Its pure origination somewhere else,

It is like an idea for a poem not yet written

And maybe never to be completed, because

The surface of the page is like lake water,

That takes back what is written on its surface,

And all my language about the lake and its

Emotions or its sweet obliviousness,

Or even its being like an origination,

Is all erased with the changing of the breeze

Or because of the heedless passing of a cloud.

When, moments after she died, I looked into

Her face, it was as untelling as something natural,

A lake, say, the surface of it unreadable,

Its sources of meaning unfindable anymore.

Her mouth was open as if she had something to say;

But maybe my saying so is a figure of speech.


*Several of the ideas and illustrations that I’ve used here first appeared in my Guest Blog Post for Anthony Wilson’s blog in January 2016.





10 thoughts on “Fewer Jellyfish: Jack Underwood on Poetry and Uncertainty

  1. Language is a constuct & post-Wittgenstein: considering the paradigm of linguists: semantics to semiotics, we’ve moved on since Nietzsche made his proclamation that if we lose our language we lose our culture, we live in the dystopian reality of Post-Post-Modern, a New Romantic school in 2018 & Aria Ligi’s ‘NewPoetry’ launching online in February, its style evolved from Apocalyptic poets of the 1940s, concomitant horrors of WWII & the its spirit of alienation; chaos & the erosion of the rational, a wormhole to 1818 & the imprimatur of ‘Frankenstein’ & the Gothic revival.
    Fashion’s fleeting shadows in a Platonic cave, poetry has shifted gear from Apollonian to Dionysian in 2018!


  2. In defence of the vague and woolly (when used carefully 🙂 “clarity can mislead: the precise, specific, concrete image offers us a thousand things to take up which are not to the author’s purpose. The blurred or generalized meaning avoids that danger” (I.A. Richards). The problem can be that the poet’s “flower” is like a toddler’s first doodle: a generic idea. If the writer says that the flowers are “yellow”, we wonder why that feature is emphasised, because writers cannot mention without pointing, whether it’s at objects or their secondary properties.

    Also I recall reading about a psychology experiment in New Scientist that fuzzy pictures can be more emotive than detailed ones (a dark object at night is more scary if you can’t see what it is; a fuzzy Mother-Child image can be more affecting than a photograph where the people can be identified).


    • Thanks Tim – I can hardly think that Underwood really is recommending the vague and woolly though that is what his piece says pretty explicitly. I’m sure there are ways of using language with precision and hyper-care (what poets are supposed to be doing i think) but with the intention of evoking and connoting rather than denoting. It’s all to do with context and the longer run of sections of language so that your evocative fuzziness is achieved over several lines rather than in specific woolly lexical choices. Or so I like to think. I have the idea that at the end of a poem – a short lyric as much as a longer piece – one is left in a state of humming, resonance which is not plain precision or child-like pointing but a mood or state of consciousness that could not have been evoked in any other way than by the words chosen.


      • That’s precisely it, meaning depends on context, juxtaposition a kind of thread running through to the denouement, to draw the clue-thread together producing that ‘resonance’, which applies to storytelling, essay-writing or scenario, therefore: exposition, development following through the weft to the final tying-off of the denouement avoiding deus ex machina to complete the thought-picture, unsullied by a clod of mud that a Navaho carpet weaver would include, because the concept of perfection is too close to ‘god’.
        It’s a matter of consequences, ‘immaculate corpses’ that Surrealist parlour-game that Andre Breton’s influence expanded into pataphysics by Alfred Jarry, the ‘situationist’. Tristan Tzara had been there before with his Dada word-assemblages that was a part of the tree-of-life that fruited into Olipo in the 1960s, such is the history of the avant garde, everything depends on context.


  3. If we make the quantum leap into mathematics, consider for a moment a sentence as a ‘balanced equation’, then Heisenberg’s ‘Uncertainty Principle’ might become the axiom about which our meditation on the vowel or ‘soul’ of a given word might be seen 360, considering its consonants as the ‘body’ giving it substance or Dinglischkeit or ‘thingness’ of any given expression. There’s more actuality in the ‘spelling’ of words, conjuring up an atmosphere than that musty old Platonic cave at first suggests.


  4. Dear Martin,

    Your blog re the Underwood essay was passed to me by Patricia. I was very interested in your response because, having already read the essay, and formed a rather more negative view of the piece even than yourself, I was glad to read your discussion of it. I do not dispute what you write: it is an admirable analysis, for which I am grateful to you for doing it. The one further paragraph I would like to highlight is that on p.46 of the PR beginning ‘But poems use language…’ and ending ‘forgetting and remembering it.’ In the middle of the paragraph Underwood says, ‘Like Ruefle I also teach poetry for a living,’. Given that his essay denounces language and meaning it seems an amazing, contradiction verging on…I will not fill in the word, but simply say in summation that it is no surprise that the once natural audience for poetry has vanished, and that ‘poetry’ has now been reduced to a mere technical aid to ‘teaching’ something unidentifiable..
    Best Wishes,


    • Thanks William – JU’s essay seems remarkably unguarded I must say – which is a nice way of saying he delivers too many thoughts in a sloppy way. And I’m a bit concerned that the note in PR suggests this is one of 7 pieces that he’s preparing for a book. We that are old and outside the currents of fashion might think it seems a bit – well – studenty. Though as he points out he is in fact a teacher of such students. I always want to give the benefit of the doubt. The problem with ‘teaching students not to know’ as he puts it, is the risk that students will abandon all hope of articulating something of truth (old fashioned word) and resort to good old stream of consciousness chaos on the basis that that’s what came to mind first. I’m with Frost in seeing a lot of Surrealism as a grasshopper hopping about pretty pointlessly. Poetry evokes states of consciousness – or shifts from one state to another – and that isn’t done at random or hardly ever by chance and sloppiness.


  5. I think that both Martyn and William are right in rejecting Underwood’s absurd idea of poetry’s limitations and its inability to convey so-called objective truth. Beyond our senses the material world is merely a dance of molecules, turned into sight, sound, touch and smell by our faculties. Underwood perhaps forgets that like us, the molecular dance is also in constant flux. You cannot step into the same river twice because both you AND the river will have changed. As Rilke observed everything is once and once only, and as Wallace Stevens also noted: “Death is the mother of beauty.” Paradoxically, we only value experiences of beauty and love, precisely because they are transient, and because we cannot grasp them fully.

    William’s observation that “Poetry has now been reduced to a mere technical aid to teaching something unidentifiable” is the saddest comment I have read for a long time – sad because I fear that in a digital world distrustful of everything that is not scientifically verifiable he may be right.


    • Thanks Tony – I suspect Underwood would agree with your image – which I like – of both self and other in constant flux. My problem is with what he concludes which seems to offer a hopeless shrug before such conditions as if, well, what we then right hardly matters. I don’t usually understand Stevens (if I’m honest) but I do get the phrase you quote. Beauty, of the kind poetry pursues, is existant only in the presence of Death and transience because a beauty resistant to Death and time would itself have to be dead. Keats knew this well enough in the Grecian Urn.


  6. it’s also a matter of ‘shared experienced’ rendered by a commonality, Eliot’s ‘objective correlative’, as poets, as artists we can only hope to reach into the mind’s eye of our readers this way: almost shamanic with the images & symbols from the Sacred Wood, the runes & ogham script, ‘The Golden Bough’ & its primitive significance imbibed as milk in the infancy of humankind: our bardic language, inherent in Robert Graves ‘White Goddess’, the Art & Craft of our trade. From Caedmon at the Synod of Whitby to the ‘Lyrical Ballads’, & ‘Piers Plowman’, we read the ‘King James Version’s ‘Songs of Solomon’ ‘Paradise Lost’ & ‘Regained’. We sing within the cadences of Anglo-Saxon ‘sprung rhythm’ & cultivate the echoes of Mnemosyne, to breath with the breathes those poets travelling with the Milesian Kings who knew in their rituals in Athens. Their meters, a question of ear. It will take some production of juvenilia & the rejection by those who know the ‘cardinal rules’, because rather than ‘fuzzy’ , poetry is as precise as science relying on cultivation of a mind that’s attuned to synthesis rather than analysis, to explore the possibilities,reaching into the unconscious, entering a revery not dissimilar to a trance state experiencing alpha waves, as a rhapsody or dithyramb takes flight, on the ‘viewless wings of prosody’ : Poetry is the sister art to Music. (Having said that it all depends on our interpretation of a ‘shared culture’ Longfellow’s ‘Hiawatha’ was translated using an Ancient Scandinavian meter, true that might hark back to the ‘Sagas’. God we share humanity, & that’s worth celebrating, from pyramid to ziggurat: we’ve revisited history once too often, we should explore histrionics. The page used to be sacred in Ptolemaic times, papyrus was vital,now in the Third Millennium we almost live in a virtual world, yet the cardinal rules don’t suffer a sea-change.
    Keep in mind the three principles: image, wit & music. ‘Warbling woodnotes wild’, poetry is a replication of Nature quintessentially: poets are the lyrebirds, the blackbirds that can sing all the songs of the forest, they are the chameleons, the nightingales.


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