Being Confused

Today I want to introduce a wonderful poet, Cullen Bailey Burns. Cullen and I go way back. We met in the MFA program at Western Michigan University. Since then Cullen has published two gorgeous poetry collections. Her most recent is Slip, out just this year.

by Guest Blogger Cullen Bailey Burns

Most of us hate the feeling of confusion; I know I do. In fact, confusion often causes a feeling of panic in me. In reading poetry, however, I have learned to look forward to and embrace confusion. The first moments when a poem resists me as I read it bring me to life and into curiosity in ways I find hard to explain. Take for example the wonderful Mary Szybist’s “The Troubadours, Etc.

The title catches me off-guard at the start. Isn’t there some rule about not using “etc.” in titles, that throwaway word? Then the first line, “Just for this evening, let’s not mock them.” I don’t know who the speaker is; I am not certain who the “them” is and I don’t know why we would be mocking to begin with. I am also confused by my complicity implied with the casual “let’s.” My confusion eases a bit in the next lines, when it becomes clear they are the troubadours, but arises again in the one-line stanza “At least they had ideas about love.”

Again, the implication here is that someone (the reader? the couple we meet in the next lines?) does not have ideas about love. As the poem becomes more personal, I understand the situation: a couple is driving west, the speaker meditating on distance, time, the meaning (possibility?) of love. In a series of moves that keep me off balance, the poem addresses a wide range of subjects, some visible to the speaker as she travels and some pulled from memory.

Toward the end of the poem, the speaker asks a series of questions, beginning with “At what point is something gone completely?” The “something” could be many things: passenger pigeons. Troubadours. Pilgrims. Love. Because the poet has so skillfully filled the poem with possibilities, the question can be about each of her subjects/all of her subjects at once.

And that’s the thing about confusion. Our minds’ desire to pin meaning down hard and fast is a desire for simplicity: this + that = something beautiful and smart. Isn’t that formula of many poems? But the best poems require us to linger in the space of not completely understanding, where we find many bolder, harder options. A poem could be about love (most poems are) but also about what passes, what we destroy, what we are unsatisfied with. This poem ends: “Then try, try to come closer–/my wonderful and less than.” In its unfinished comparison, this line refuses to explain itself, and mimics the distant horizon the couple travels toward, unreachable. As are the answers to our hardest questions about love and belief.

Ok, so that’s all well and good, you say, but what about writing? How does confusion help us write better? I would say this: we need to leave space. What’s brave about Szybist’s poem is that it trusts the reader will follow its twists and leaps, without a particular end in sight. Often when I write, I am so very tempted to tie everything up at the end in a lovely bow. “See, reader, what I’m doing here? See what this means?” How many years it has taken me to step back, let the poem be, trust that while my images and language must be as clear and tight as possible, meaning will be made in the reader.

Does not belong in a poem


Don’t mistake me. I am not arguing that a bunch of random images can mean just anything or that the writer should not understand or carefully construct the poem’s movement. I am not suggesting that a poem means anything a reader wants it to. But surprise, a temporary loss of our footing on the slope of a first reading, that’s good stuff. And a reader only gets that thrill if the writer leaves space for it.

Cullen Bailey Burns


Filed under Books, Essay, Nonfiction, Poetry, Poetry book, Writing

19 responses to “Being Confused

  1. I love poetry, but I don’t like being confused by it. You’re so right when you say that the writer has to leave room for the reader to figure it out. When I read a poem and don’t have a clue what the poet is talking about, I wonder what was the point of writing it, or me reading it.

    • Hah, Anneli, I know what you mean about being too confused by a poem. On the other hand, a poem that sums it all up for the reader can offer up easy quotes or validate the reader’s “current” thoughts or feelings, but doesn’t leave room for bringing those thoughts and feelings to another level. I’m trying to figure out if fiction is like that, and I think it can be. Those are the books readers tend to wrestle with, I think.

  2. In fiction writing, I don’t want my reader to be confused, but I don’t want them to be able to predict what will happen either. I guess I prefer briefly befuddled.
    Congratulations on your poetry publications, Cullen.

    • Jill, great point about not being too predictable. I think that is very similar to Cullen’s point, at least in part, because tying a poem up with a bow at the end if always the predictable way to end the poem! Definitely check out Cullen’s new book, Jill–gorgeous poems–and you won’t be confused, just enriched!

  3. Wow, what a great blog. Reading a good poem is like walking down a dark street at night — potholes, slippery spots, and all.

  4. Confusion can also been as mystery, or magic, or allowing the reader to draw some of their own conclusions. I like that. I also love when the title of the poem carries great importance – sometimes, you just know that without the title you would not have known what was going on, but the title cinches it.

    • Ah, love that–mystery or magic. What is a poem without a little magic in it?! I remember as a kid I didn’t pay any attention to titles, but eventually I learned that that was a big mistake!

  5. That’s it – no more bows. What a radical point of view, to keep the reader slightly confused. Good in mystery novels but I’d never thought of it in poetry. I like this. I also like your new poetry series, Luanne. You keep us guessing with what you’re going to do next – fun!

    • Yes, it’s so important when Cullen says that when you write a poem you need to leave some “space” in it. Don’t cinch it up and tie that bow. Thanks re the series! These are some smarties who agreed to write about poetry!!

  6. I think you’re pretty well connected, not to mention pretty smart, too.

  7. Carla

    I love these thoughts about confusion, something I find to be intriguing and desirable! Poetry offers both confusion and then a strange kind of clarity, and I love the experience of reading it, noticing these kinds of feelings occurring. Wonderful analysis demonstration! Great job, Cullen, and what a great name for a poet!

  8. I am always grateful for writer’s perspective. Honestly, Luanne, you give us your expectations and sometimes disappointments in critiquing memoirs, so was surprised how you ‘let us in’ on your first impressions of the poetry. I feel beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as well as it is possible to have different meanings found within the same piece of work. I have sometimes commented on a blog, wondered if this would come out ‘right’ and if I should couch my comments in a little bit of praise or “I think….” before I give my opinion or thoughts. Overall, in the end, poetry has many layers, so your telling us you “the best poems….” which tells us that we need to read and think more deeply, allowing ourselves time to interpret poetry. As far as rules, there should not be any, as Shel Silverstein proved in many of his childhood poems, some which made my children laugh, as I shuddered at its ‘honesty.’ Thanks, Luanne, for expressing your impressions and allowing us to respond…

    • Robin, well, I can’t take credit for Cullen’s ideas here ;), but I think she makes some fabulous points, as well as shares a poem by Szybist that is really marvelous!
      By the way, Shel Silverstein’s poetry is a world unto itself! And whose poetry has been more popular in the past few decades than this?!

  9. Love this praise of confusion, both with the poet trustingly allowing it and the reader embracing it. What a wonderful world.

  10. Pingback: Buttons, Hard Work, and Poetry | Writer Site

Leave a Reply