At a poetry reading once, a woman in the audience asked T.S. Eliot what he meant by the line ‘Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree.’ He replied ‘I meant “Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree.”’ One can just imagine the prim, tight-lipped, bank-clerk smile with which he said it; imagine, too, the titters of the audience and the mortification of the woman who had asked.
The bastard. The smart-arse. The total shit. Yet he was right. Of course, if he’d been a nice man, (which he wasn’t), he’d have gone on to explain, which he didn’t.
The point is, if there had been a clearer way of saying what he wanted to say, then, if he was a good poet, (which he was), he would have used it. Poetry is in the business of extending the boundaries of language; of what can be said. It will seem strange, even incomprehensible, at first; it will take time for the rest of us to catch up. Lines that seemed nonsense a hundred years ago often seem quite clear now. Sometimes it takes longer; Gerard Manley Hopkins was born just a hundred years before me, and his poetry, though most of us can now see how good it is, still seems strange:
Our hearts’ charity’s hearth’s fire, our thoughts’ chivalry’s throng’s Lord.
When I used to review new poetry books, I soon found that the better the poetry, the harder it was to say anything about it.
The same goes for all the arts. The easier it is to explain, the less good it is likely to be.