High-Minded and Low-Brow Writings: True Art Needs No Explanation

Yesterday, I received a comment from a reader about a short poem I had written that questioned my vocabulary. (Although he did go on to praise other things about the poem, as others have.)

“This would have been amazing, had the vocabulary not seemed so used.”

While I wasn’t upset by the comment, it did set me to thinking – Is it possible to have an “overdone vocabulary?” It all has to do with language and vocabulary and writing. There are those that complain when poems seem “lofty” and “high-brow,” using “big” words and a literary vocabulary. Yet, there is the opposing base that gripes when words are too simple, “childish,” not big enough, and consider the work lacking. Some find problems with poems that are seemingly too complex, too abstract for a mere mortal to understand. Others think a work is too muddling, too low-country, too understandable to qualify as poetic quality. How do we define what is poetry and form and prose and appropriate? Or can it be all of the above? While I may use the word pulchritudinous, another may simply say beautiful. Are either of these wrong? Or right?

According to William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well, “It is a question of using the English language in a way that will achieve the greatest clarity and strength.” He pounds the pulpit with “Simplify, simplify.” He denounces clutter as a one-trick pony suitable for over-blown politicians and the like. Zinsser says that clutter “is the laborious phrase that has pushed out the short word that means the same thing.” Instead of people and businesses saying “now,” they say “currently,” or “at the present time,” or “presently.” Yet, all of this can be simply said with the word “now.”

Poetry is a tricky subject. Sometimes, the higher-minded words are appropriate and the poem would suffer without them. There is a beauty to the expressive words. On the flip side, there are poems where it is obvious the writer was using his thesaurus a bit too much to “blow up” his poem. Yet, in certain poems the beauty is in the simplicity. This can apply to any kind of writing, not just poetry. (As a side note, Zinsser would criticize my use of the word, “yet,” but I can’t seem to give it up – useless clutter?)

It is similar to my approach to my paintings. What is my responsibility as an artist, a writer, to the public? Do I create pieces that everyone can understand or no one can understand but me? Or is the value in creating a piece where each person sees what they need to see for themselves? Is it something where I have to stand by the side and explain to each person as they engage in it or is it something where I can let it be and a person will know the meaning behind it all? Is it worth writing a poem or a book or short story where the reader has to have a thesaurus, dictionary, Google, and what-have-you beside him just to try to make it through the first paragraph?

I’m reminded of a scene in Steven James’s book, The Bishop, where Tessa, Patrick Bower’s stepdaughter, is illicitly meeting her newly discovered biological father, Paul Lansing, at a sculpture exhibit. Lansing asks her opinion on the sculptures and he’s astounded by what she can deduce from looking at the sculpture. As he provokes her further, she exasperatedly tells him,

I’m no artist, but I don’t think the point of art is to mean, I think it’s to render. If it doesn’t do that, if it needs a plaque to explain it, it’s not art. It’s like nature – what does a bird mean by its song? What does a flower mean when it blooms? It means beauty. Any explanation beyond that is superfluous.

She feels that the sculptures were “completely lame” – trying too hard to say too much, or so esoteric that they failed to say anything at all. In the latter case, the museum posted little plaques to explain the meaning behind the sculptures. As Tessa reveals, true art, real art, needs no explanation. There’s no epilogue at the end of a novel telling you what the story was supposed to mean. No commentary at the end of symphony explaining what the composer was trying to communicate with those specific notes. No footnotes clarifying the meaning of poems – at least not any that are worth reading. Art either stands on its own or it does not. As soon as it needs to be explained, it ceases to be art.

I have been criticized and criticized others for all these very things. I judge when I read a simple piece and a complex piece – oh, it’s too basic…oh, it’s way too snobbish…Or maybe that is the point of every piece. MAYBE – Just MAYBE – THAT is finding what it whispers to me. I have been moved to tears by the simplest words and enlightened by the more complex words. How can a word, vocabulary, become overdone and overused when those words may move one, but not another? My simple is your childish and overdone. My complex is your snobbish and high-brow. I love what you hate, and you hate what I love. Yet, we are all moved by the same piece.

Share your thoughts with me….

The poem that struck the chord:

My Unborn Dream

I wait with bated breath
A sigh upon the whispering breeze
Lifting a tiny seed of hope.
You are cradled inside me
Nestled between my heart and desire.
A longing to feel, to breathe, to taste, to smell…
Your heartbeat thudding in my breast.
A mirage of vaporing tendrils
Wavering in the muted distance
Misty smoke visions un-yet seen.
I bear the weight of your siren call
Beckoning with your imagined baby blues.
A ghost of things to be
My unborn dream.


10 thoughts on “High-Minded and Low-Brow Writings: True Art Needs No Explanation

  1. Words that work, work for me. High-brow..low-brow all apart of the broth. And any word-slinger worth her salt will often end up in the soup.

    Nice Post


  2. i am not an expert but your poem feels like its very old, like from a history poems books you find in a dark corner of a book store 🙂 i know it sounds corny but thats how i see it.
    its a simple beautiful poem.
    I struggle everyday with the english languages exp. with writing. For me its important to read it and understand it … who wants to google every line ore word just to understand the meaning behind a story ore poem ? don’t beet your self up about it 🙂 200-300 years ago ore more…. the english language was not perfect not even close like its today… and its still not perfect… now everything is shorten with the words… lol sometimes i need a dictionary what my Daughter is writing to me when she is txt lol on the phone…


    1. Thank you for the compliments on the poem! I always enjoying hearing people’s perspectives. You are right that the English language is constantly changing and evolving which makes it that much more fascinating! Grammar has always been tough for me, but spelling is a breeze (usually). We all have our strengths and weaknesses. The goal is to work on it all to become better writers. Texting is a whole other ball of wax. 🙂 I can understand the confusion!


  3. I think it is a beautiful poem. The more poetry I read and read about poetry the more it seems it is as with many forms of writing…each to his own. Not everyone likes the same thing, but how wonderful, keeps the world from being such a boring place.


  4. I would love to see what your critic is writing. People most often criticize others for issues they fear they themselves have. In our pre-packaged, instant gratification, everything shortened to it’s smallest possible incarnation — He prbbly wanted u to use this stupid vocab. The English language is being bastardized by people who would rather have fast than good.


    1. Now, now, do you think that fair… “The English language is being bastardized” Yes, and thank goodness … why leave syntax to the swells..



  5. The poem is rich and expressive. We seek words and images that connect us to one another. Low brow or high brow, from a cave painting (lol, early brow?) to the painting on the Sistine chapel, we look for what moves us, and for what we recognize as part of the human experience. The artist tells the story.


    1. I wholeheartedly agree! The artist tells the story, but it is up to us to interpret it. Every story or artwork will have a different meaning to each person, even if the story is made plain. The Sistine Chapel rendered me speechless and tears streaming down my cheeks as I gazed at the wondrous artwork.


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