Forgive me for the length of this post. It's just that, after having read this article through three or four times, I find so much in it with which I can agree. But I wanted to see what the rest of us thought.
The Mystique of the Difficult Poem
When I was about fifteen I fell in love with Hart Crane. The poems in White Buildings, The Bridge and Key West shimmered with the most fragile
and delicate poignance. It was the very music of the soul's anguish. As for Crane's suicide, that was icing on the cake: it made the work even more
tragic, more unbearably gorgeous. The fact that I had only the vaguest idea what he was talking about, and sometimes not even that, bothered me hardly at all until I was in my twenties and the pure music of Crane began to seem less enticing than the work of poets who, in addition to their engaging linguistic skills, actually seemed to have something coherent to say. Although Crane's pervasive obscurity was more tolerable than that of poets who were less exquisite musicians, l had by then read enough incomprehensible poetry to know that I wanted something more. I wanted marvelous music to be sure, stunning figures, an imaginative linguistic playfulness that was everywhere inspired and surprising, but I also wanted poems that spoke to me with thrilling precision and insight. The "ambiguities" that the New Critics imagined to be at the center of poetic craft seemed almost always to weaken rather than strengthen my experience of the poem. Though my first reading of a poem is likely to take pleasure in the language, the tonalities, the music and linguistic sparkle, the intelligence and taste behind the phrasing, nonetheless, I find myself unlikely to finish reading a poem if it becomes apparent that the poet has no intention of communicating much of anything beyond all that language, all that music. Far be it from me to invade his privacy. If I want pure music I can listen to Palestrina and Sam Cooke.
At about the same time as my uneasiness over modernist incoherence was growing, Allen Ginsberg, himself still a young man, was beginning to publish a poetry that was more fierce, emotionally charged, and appealingly human than anything I had read from his more staid and
conventional contemporaries. And not the least of his virtues was that he was perfectly coherent. The stuff wasn't filled with footnotable literary allusions and hopelessly gnarled syntax and untrackable metaphoric acrobatics. "Howl" opened up a territory, at least for me, that the modernists had spent the first half of the century trying to close off.
Suddenly the doors of possibility had been flung wide open. There was plenty of freedom, plenty of room to move around and to do what the avant garde had never dared to do--write poems in coherent English.
And then, when I was twenty-seven, I moved to the West Coast and picked up Robinson Jeffers, and was stunned anew. He was as wonderful a musician as any of the modernists I'd read, easily as fine and conscious a craftsman, but his poems, like Ginsberg's, were perfectly understandable. Jeffers' music was certainly not as ecstatic or intoxicating as Hart Crane’s, but then again he never seemed ornamental, precious, histrionic; he was never without flesh and substance. Jeffers not only had something of moment to say but he managed to say it, as had Ginsberg, without resorting to a hundred subterfuges, misdirections, ambiguities.
Moreover, Jeffers' vision was larger by far than that of his contemporaries, those high modernists who had dominated American poetry during the
first half of the twentieth century.
Of course, in the background of my life, there had always been Whitman: larger and wiser than any poet had been before or has been since, and
everywhere luminously clear. But somehow, perhaps because he was not of my century, or because he was a poet of such singular genius, his ability to speak with the utmost clarity about even the most subtle and all but inexpressible matters hadn't been able to serve me as a model.
Under the influence of Whitman, Ginsberg and Jeffers, the canonical American poets, with their inordinate love of difficulty, began to lose their
luster. I became profoundly suspicious of the whole modernist enterprise. As a fledgling poet I had written enough high-flown gibberish myself to
know its seductions. Though I would continue to be read occasional poems and passages in poems that were thrilling, however inexplicable,
the business of writing incoherent poetry seemed tiresome, and I wanted nothing to do with it.
This, I fully realize, is a minority opinion, at least among poets, academics and critics. Though I imagine the vast bulk of the reading public feels much as I do--hence their indifference to contemporary poetry--I suspect many in the trade will find such an attitude appalling, for impenetrability is still widely admired. A recent review in The New York Review of Books claims,
for example, as though it were a sign of the poet's talent and distinction, that Eugenio Montale "will lead commentators into all kinds of difficulty when it comes to establishing the content of many of the poems." The reviewer, discussing at length a particular twelve-line poem from Montale's early collection, Cuttlefish, happily admits that he has almost no idea what it means, though it is one of Montale's "simplest" lyrics. "What, overall, is the poem about?" he asks. "Even with this simplest of lyrics, the essential nub winds off into a cloud of possibilities." But this unclarity at the "essential nub" of so many Montale poems is, so the reviewer assures us, among the poet's chiefmost virtues. The genius of Montale's work is achieved through "a prodigious density encouraging ever more complex levels of consciousness, and evoking the finest shadings of emotion colored by every variety of thought." The reviewer, Tim Parks, is a knowledgeable reader of Montale's poetry, and his praise of poetic incomprehensibility is not at all unusual among those who read poetry
seriously. Nonetheless, if you look at his assertion closely, you will see that it is little more than a sophisticated version of the bemused college
freshman's belief that a poem isn't really supposed to mean anything at all, so that the reader can have the pleasure of making it mean whatever he wants it to mean. When Tim Parks reminds us that "poetry in this century has become more cryptic, more private, more untranslatable,"
there is, in his voice, no hint of reproach. This assertion, that "difficulty" is one of modernism's defining virtues, has been so frequently injected
into the body of contemporary aesthetics that it has become an unchallenged and toxic part of its bloodstream.
In The Best American Poetry of 1990, Jorie Graham makes perhaps the most eloquent, lengthy and detailed recent defense of difficult and
indeterminate verse. In one typical passage she writes:
When we experience a loosening of setting or point of view, and a breakdown of syntax's dependence on closure, we witness an opening
up of the present-tense terrain of the poem, a privileging of delay and digression over progress. This opening up of the present moment as a
terrain outside time--this foregrounding of the field of the "act of the poem"--can be explained in many ways. We might consider the way in which the idea of perfection in art seems to be called into question by many of our poets. On the one hand, some might argue today, the notion of perfection serves ultimately to make an object not so much ideal as available to a marketplace, available for ownership--something to be acquired by the act f understanding.
In this passage, Graham is recommending not just the virtues of being "indefinite" about the poem's setting, but the value of employing a
syntax that guarantees that the reader will be confused about anything the poet might be trying to say. The tactical advantage of this seems to be
that if readers have no idea what you're talking about and are unable to pay attention to either the narrative or the ideas (because, in fact, the poet has refused to articulate any), they will be forced to attend to "the field of the 'act of the poem'," that is, I take it, to the manner of its saying: the phrasing, juxtapositions, music, diction, imagery and such. This, I assume, is what she means by "an opening up of the present-tense terrain of the poem," and what she means by suggesting, in a phrase that seems somewhat inflated for its occasion, that such poems are "outside time." Apparently, if there is no narrative, no temporal instance that is being described, the poem is, therefore, "timeless." Finally, she seems to
suggest that the idea of a "perfect" poem, or the attempt to write such a poem, produces something that, by virtue of being accessible to the general reader, becomes no more than a contemptible "commodity." This notion betrays a patrician haughtiness that one imagines Graham would be loathe to confess more directly. Elsewhere in that essay, she writes:
The genius of syntax consists in its permitting paradoxical, "unsolvable" ideas to be explored, not merely nailed down, stored, and owned; in its
permitting the soul-forging pleasures of thinking to prevail over the acquisition of information called knowing.
For Graham, thinking and exploration seem to mean no more than being vague and ambiguous enough so that neither the author nor the reader
can recognize, let alone explore, any genuine idea or perception. This, of course, is not what we tend to mean by genuine exploration of ideas but is only the facade of such exploration, and indeed what is being recommended in her essay seems nothing but a poetry of facades. Her introductory essay, made up almost entirely of this sort of piffling, goes
on for some fourteen pages, all to glorify the lofty desire of the poet to resist making sense. This is the open-ended, exploratory, multivoiced,
indeterminate, opaquely textured, disjunctive and defamiliarizing, closure-free world of postmodern poetics. And if it promotes a poetry that is "free of any user," it augurs as well a poetry that is likely to be free of many readers.
While Graham wants others to share her heady excitement over such verse, it is apt to prove a difficult sell, though her own experience of
such poetry, she insists, is nothing short of redemptive. Here, in her somewhat overheated prose, she captures (or invents, depending on
your view of her credibility) the rapturous, revival- meeting spirit that overcomes her when she listens to the glossolalia of incomprehensible
the motion of the poem as a whole resisted my impulse to resolve it into "sense" of a rational kind. Listening to the poem, I could feel my irritable reaching after fact, my desire for resolution, graspable meaning, ownership....It resisted. It compelled me to let go. The frontal, grasping
motion frustrated, my intuition was forced awake. I felt myself having to "listen" with other parts of my sensibility, felt my mind being forced back down into the soil of my senses. And I saw it was the resistance of the poem--its occlusion, or difficulty--that was healing me, forcing me to privilege my heart, my intuition--parts of my sensibility infrequently called upon in my everyday experience in the marketplace of things and
Mercifully less decorative is Graham's discussion, near the beginning of her essay, wherein she admits--though only, I would guess, as a rhetorical ploy--that she feels some uneasiness about the enterprise of writing poetry that resists being understood. Here, it is interesting to note, the misty cerebral romance of he rest of her essay is nowhere to be found. Here she writes in cogent English--perhaps because she has something unequivocal to say:
Yet surely the most frequent accusation leveled against contemporary poetry is its difficulty or inaccessibility. It is accused of speaking only to
itself, of becoming an irrelevant and elitist art form with a dwindling audience....For how can we hear that "no one reads it," or that "no one understands it," without experiencing a failure of confidence....We start believing that it is essentially anachronistic. We become anecdotal.
We want to entertain. We believe we should "communicate." In the lexicon of modernism, "anecdotal," "entertain," and "communicate" are indeed beneath contempt. They stand with "self- expression" and "sincerity" as the sort of sorry business in which only the novice and the inept engage. But if poets have far more noble goals, as Graham assures us they have, than to concern themselves with so tawdry a matter as making their poems intelligible, whatever these goals
might be they seem too ephemeral and rarified to attract the common reader, who is likely to find behind the claim little of substance and nothing of interest.
Jorie Graham, one of our most praised contemporary poets, represents the aesthetic thinking of those who, like Parks, find difficulty a decided virtue. Indeed, she envisions a poetry that is not merely difficult but indeterminate, that is to say, incomprehensible. And if Graham's rationale
seems a bit murky, what is one to say of something like this, the opening half-sentence of an essay by Charles Bernstein, a leading "theoretician" among the American postmodernists:
Not "death" of the referent--rather a recharged use of the multivalent referential vectors that any word has, how words in combination tone and
modify the associations made for each of them, how 'reference' then is not a one-on-one relation to an 'object' but a perceptual dimension that closes in to pinpoint, nail down (this word), sputters omnitropically (the in in the which of who where what wells), refuses the build up of image track/projection while, pointillistically, fixes a reference at each turn...
More reasoned and modest than Jorie Graham's, and far less silly and dismissable than Bernstein’s, is the defense of difficult poetry recently set forth by by Donald Justice, who argues that certain kinds of obscurity in poetry are "not altogether destructive" ["Benign Obscurity," from Oblivion: On Writers and Writing, Story Line Press, 1998]. The least persuasive of his arguments is the curious notion that a poem without "hidden meanings" is likely to be trivial or frivolous, an assertion that he makes in passing and does not bother either to explain or defend. Nor does it seem likely, from anything his essay suggests, that he would be able to. Though he distinguishes a "benign" sort of obscurity from that form of obscurity for which he has less indulgence- -what he characterizes as the "blanketing fog that can creep over everything"--he seems to be saving his approval, for the most part, for a poetry of magnificent music which makes the obscurity of its text seem not only palatable but perfectly appropriate, a part of the poem's necessary texture--a quality without which the poem would be something less imposing and less memorable than it is. Justice, who makes such suggestions in the most provisional and tempered language, argues that "one may be led on, and cheerfully enough at times, by precisely one's failure to grasp what is being said. And there is the excitement, meanwhile, of being in beyond one's depth." Though it is possible, I suppose, that an opaque passage or phrase in an otherwise clear text can be intriguing, and can add a certain color and excitement to a poem, I am not fully convinced of it. Though the joy of pure poetic music and language certainly has its rewards, they seem ultimately smaller rewards than such poetry would have were the same quality of language tethered to intelligible subject matter and perception. Imagine Hart Crane, for example, writing a poetry of the same verbal richness and intensity, but one that was filled with brilliant and fully lucid descriptions, narratives, characterizations, and insights. I hardly imagine it would be a lesser
Justice makes an even more interesting argument about the success of many of the more obscure poems of Hopkins, Hart Crane and Dylan
Thomas when he suggests that "the singular power of such poems seems to penetrate the emotional system directly, without ever having to pass through the understanding." But this, it seems to me, is to make too much of the fact that one can catch the flavor, subject, attitude and emotional tone of a passage with only a few verbal cues. That certainly seems true. But with the exception of a few heady examples--poets of glorious musical skill such as the ones Justice cites--it is hard for me to think of many poets who can carry the day on their musicianship alone. It is to suggest, I think, that the content of poems really is an unimportant aspect. Perhaps that is true for Justice. I know it is not true for me. His third argument is that the obscurity of a narrative poem such as E. A. Robinson's "Eros Turanos" might, perhaps, be "expressive of the very understanding the poem is intended to carry." By this he seems to mean that the poem's narrative unclarity might be rooted in--that is, it might be a consciously formal or strategic correlative for--the moral complexity of the situation it purports to describe. I confess at once that the suggestion seems farfetched, and the
very fact that Justice himself is so uneasy about postulating it leads me to believe he's about as unconvinced by it as I am. I suspect, rather, that
he so much admires both those parts of the Robinson poem that are clear and the prosodic and writerly skill of the whole that he has allowed his good common sense to be swayed by a number of other critics who admire the poem, in part, for the very reason that it doesn't entirely make sense. To my taste, Robinson's best poems are, however subtle in their narrative strategies, nonetheless perfectly clear. When he fails, which is often enough, it is because of an inability or unwillingness to tell his story with sufficient clarity. "Eros Turanos" has fine passages and, here and
there, admirable moments of complex psychological portraiture but, in the end, the poem collapses beneath the weight of its unclarity. Although Justice wonders if those critics might be right that its very unclarity is a virtue, he seems uneasy about the proposition and not entirely
convinced, and his essay ends with the most modest of claims. For certain poems or certain kinds of poems a degree of obscurity, he posits, is simply unavoidable, and with such poems "the obscurity is no handicap, perhaps even has its uses--can we claim this much?"
It seems to me that the widespread critical belief that poetry needn't communicate has had disastrous consequences for the art, and that a
shockingly large part of the poetry of our own time is, with its blanketing fog of obscurity, altogether unreadable. In the end, neither avant-garde
Language Poets like Charles Bernstein nor well- meaning postmodernists like Jorie Graham are to be blamed for this mess. Children of the age of
theory, the postmodernists argue that communication isn't really possible anyhow and hat no reading of a "text" can be "privileged" over indeterminate. But this idea is by no means the radical break with the modernist tradition that it might at first seem. It is, rather, its natural
extension: postmodernist "indeterminacy" being the logical extension--or at least the reductio ad absurdum--of the defining modernist penchant
for difficulty. It wasn't Charles Bernstein, after all, but T. S. Eliot who suggested that "meaning" was a questionable expedient that we could well do without, nothing more than meat thrown to the watchdogs while the burglar robbed the house. It need be said at once that Eliot never practiced quite so radical a poetics as his remark suggests. At its best, which is a good deal of the time, his poetry, however nonlinear, is brilliantly coherent. Though the various settings of a poem like
"Prufrock" continue to shift disconcertingly, in Eliot's controlled hands the collaged, unanchorable narrative, a fusion of interior anxieties and exterior perceptions and assertions, remains, however complex and novel, brilliantly intelligible.
By the Forties, the fashion for the difficult had become so pervasive that the subject of incoherence and indeterminacy rarely arose as a significant issue in critical discourse. And although a good number of our best poets are no longer engaged in that sort of enterprise, and take pleasure in writing a poetry that, however wild, subtle and surprising, is perfectly lucid, indecipherability is still much in vogue, as one can prove by glancing through just about any contemporary anthology or poetry journal. This
opacity, which has effectively killed off any possibility of a large American readership, has been a reigning fashion in conventional poetry for
almost a century now, and while it is still common to hear the virtues of difficulty extolled in the critical literature, it is exceedingly rare to find even
the most tepid dissent. If there are serious poets and critics who are appalled by this facet of the contemporary aesthetic, they have been politic enough to keep their mouths shut. But its absence from serious consideration is probably less a matter of conscious decision than the fact that the ideology is so pervasive it has become an all but unchallengable assumption, as if difficulty were a necessary function of what poetry is, a
fundamental condition of the art itself. Which is why, I suppose, the issue has not been a significant feature of any of the poetry pie fights of
the past few decades. Fought out at the edges of the Great American Kulturkampf--that low- intensity protracted warfare between an ascendant conservatism and a liberalism that dare not speak its name--these periodic skirmishes, often emblematic of the larger national conflict being waged over America's soul, reveal a good deal about who we are and what we believe. A few years back, for example, Joseph Epstein, in a bit of conservative nostalgia, provoked an amusing squabble by suggesting that our verse had notably degenerated since the era of Eliot and Stevens.
Another battle raged over the "neo-formalists," who wish to return us to the prosodic rigors of the past. At the same time, there was the marginally
memorable flap over the deconstructionist aesthetic of the Language Poets who were either registering a monumental epistemic breakthrough,
as they themselves loudly proclaimed, or were merely "long on theory," as Allen Ginsberg once pointedly suggested. Apparently, many mainstream poets who smirk at the relentless incoherence of those avant-gardists delude themselves with the comforting notion that their own brand of highly complex, disjunctive, and imagistically dense poetry is, if one only reads sensitively enough, perfectly intelligible.
In the latest poetry brouhaha, Harold Bloom, a tireless advocate of difficulty in poetry, has registered his pique at the new multicultural
barbarism that is undermining the Western intellectual tradition. With the universities' urgency to teach an inclusive, gender-conscious, multi- ethnic curriculum, it is Bloom's fear that the "major" poets and novelists of the English tradition will be abandoned by the academy in favor of undistinguished figures whose only virtue is that they are representatives of various "under- represented" minorities. At the same time, so Bloom would have it, the critical establishment has been seriously undermined by post-structuralist, and decidedly anti-canonical notions of literature, language and culture. American poetry is self- destructing, he insists, under the influence of "the French diseases, the mock-feminists, the
commissars, the gender-and-power freaks, the hosts of new historicists and old materialists." In his essay, which appears as his introduction to
The Best of the Best American Poetry: 1988-1997 (a later volume of the same series in which Jorie Graham's essay appeared), Bloom is indignant at the dumbing-down of the university curriculum as indicated by the widespread sanctioning of cultural studies departments: that is to say, all those Black, Hispanic, Feminist and Queer arrivistes who have managed to elbow their way into seats at the academic banquet. More particularly, he is in a dither over the likes of Lady Mary Chudleigh and Anne Killigrew having insinuated themselves into those hernia-inducing tomes that undergraduates are forced to lug from building to building on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This reprehensible attack on the Western canon, he assures us, is a byproduct of "cultural guilt" and successful hectoring by "The School of Resentment." Apparently, in tilting toward affirmative action set- asides--toward homosexuals, women, undeserving poets of color, the politically correct and hyphenated-Americans--these offending
anthologies have been insidiously undermining the foundations of our civilization.
Not surprisingly, in the many rejoinders that have been made to his broadside--most notably in the Spring '98 Boston Review, which was
devoted to such responses--he is roundly attacked by a number of poets for his cultural conservatism and, by a few postmodernists, for his aesthetic conservatism. Carol Muske, in the brightest and most eloquent of those published responses, defends the revisionist Heath and the
revised Norton by recalling, during her college days, paging through anthologies of poetry, in vain, looking for the names of women. Surely there was some other female writer besides Dickinson or Sappho? Maybe the Countess of Pembroke? How thrilling it was, back then, to find a female name, even if it was attached to a relatively uninspiring poem. It was thrilling just to see that women wrote, were published. So room had to be made for these other voices--beyond the best. And beyond The
Best of. Several of the other Boston Review respondents take Bloom to task for one or another of his blind spots. But it seems to me both significant and lamentable that not a single essayist responding to Bloom took issue with what I take to be his most pernicious assertion: "Authentic American poetry," he declares in that bilious introduction, is necessarily difficult. . . our situation needs aesthetic and cognitive difficulty. . . it is our elitist art, though that elite has nothing to do with social class, gender, erotic preference, ethnic strain, race, or sect. "We live in the mind," Stevens said. This insistence on poetic opacity is questioned only by those postmodernists among The Boston Review respondents who insist that poetry ought to be more incomprehensible yet.
Apparently what Bloom finds objectionable among the deconstructionist critics, those pernicious purveyors of "the French diseases," is their subversively anti-hierarchic beliefs about literature and culture, and has nothing to do with the macaronic density of their language. This is hardly surprising: the love of jargon-saturated, dizzyingly complex rhetorical footwork which those infected with the "French diseases" find so attractive is not, after all, so different from the kind of academic flapdoodle upon which his own critical reputation rests.
As for his insistence on the very necessity for difficulty, Bloom is in the absurd position of having to claim that even Walt Whitman was, "above all
else, a very difficult poet," while asserting with a straight face that Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, and John Ashbery are Whitman's true heirs. In order to
spin Whitman in the image of poets so utterly inimical to his spirit, he simply stands Whitman on his head. On an earlier occasion he had declared that Whitman's statement of ecstatic longing, "To touch my person to some one else's is about as much as I can stand," was the poet's confession that he found human touch repulsive. An unreconstructed Freudian, Bloom is capable of making any statement mean what he wishes it to mean. Freud's main technique for this kind of
convenient fast shuffle was "reaction formation," a putative psychic mechanism that transformed things into their opposites. When a patient said or dreamed something that confounded the analyst's interpretation, it was simply a reaction formation: that is, the patient's meaning was the very opposite of what it seemed to be. Thus, according to Bloom, "Whitman's poetry generally does the opposite of what he proclaims its work to be: it is reclusive, evasive, hermetic, nuanced, and more onanistic even than homoerotic." This, of course, is embarrassing nonsense. As for living in one's head, a la Wallace Stevens, that is precisely what Whitman is at pains to warn us against. When he tells us that he is "Both in and out of the game, and watching and wondering at it"--a line Bloom quotes in his essay--it is not, as that critic assumes, to register the kind of self-conscious alienation from life that his favorite modernists display. Rather, the poet is declaring that he does not live in thrall to the common delusions of the ego, but has awakened into the unmediated world:
that he is not an intellect filled with attitudes and opinions, but an empty, observing awareness. As for "difficulty," Whitman proclaims: "I will not have in my writing any elegance or effect or originality to hang in the way between me and the rest like curtains. I will have nothing hang in the way, not the richest curtains." Against the corollary modernist principle that poems are made of words, not ideas, he memorably declares: "The
words of my poem nothing, the drift of it everything." But the case of Whitman also offers to us the cautionary example of the dangers of canonical literary judgements: Our "best" poets and critics, blind to his genius, dismissed him as a vulgar eccentric, until the zeitgeist shifted in mid- century and everyone suddenly noticed his bearded figure towering above our literature. However, the most curious and provocative portion of Bloom's essay was not his attack on multiculturalism or his absurd revision of Whitman, but his attack on Adrienne Rich, whose Best
American Poetry of 1996 was the only one of David Lehman's annual series from which Bloom did not draw work for his Best of the Best. Rich's
anthology is emblematic for Bloom of the wretched state of literary affairs, exemplifying everything that's wrong with the new affirmative action poetics. It is of a badness not to be believed, because it follows the criteria now operative: what matters most are the race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnic origin, and political purpose of the would-be poet. I ardently wish I were being hyperbolical, but in fact I am exercising restraint....Bursting with sincerity, the 1996 volume is a Stuffed Owl of bad
verse, and of much badness that is neither verse nor prose.
With this judgement at least three of the Boston Review respondents unequivocally concur: one, J. D. McClatchy, is an enthusiastic advocate of difficult poetry. The other two, Marjorie Perloff and Reginald Shepherd, disdain meaning altogether. Perloff finds many of Rich's choices "relentlessly PC...maudlin, self-righteous, boring, and ultimately just plain incompetent." A tireless champion of the poetry of impenetrability, it is hardly surprising that she would find Rich's penchant for the accessible, emotional and socially engaged antithetical to her tastes. For Perloff, any poetry that doesn't exhibit an uncompromising indeterminacy smacks of the platitudinous and sentimental: soap opera
masquerading as art. Not surprisingly, Perloff faults Bloom, too, for his reactionary poetic tastes, his inability to appreciate the "genuinely radical
poetry now being written," by which she means the unabashedly incomprehensible writers whom she has been championing for the past many years.
McClatchy's criticism, less idiosyncratic than Perloff's, is more telling for the fact that it shares Bloom's particular elitist predilections. The first poem in Rich's volume, written by a prisoner at the Pelican Bay State Prison serving a twenty-two year sentence for burglary, is, he declares, a piece of "utter banality" and symptomatic of her volume as a whole. With its "clutter of clichés, sentimentality, confused syntax, and flailing gestures," it is a poem that McClatchy finds downright campy. An attempt to express the dehumanizing horror of a prison notorious for its systemic brutality, "In the Tombs," by Latif Asad Abdullah, is indeed an unsuccessful poem, but not
because of sentimentality or platitudes. Rather, its flaw is a more common one: the inability to make its case with the incisive power that its subject
demands. On the other hand, McClatchy's use of the word "campy" to characterize a poem about such enormous personal anguish strikes me as
rather chilling, and perfectly typical of the crippling emotional disability that he shares with many of his fellow academic poets and literary critics. For
such writers any unarmored feeling is to be avoided at all cost, a need that is likely to make the distancing strategies of obliqueness and opacity
seem appealing. Given that pathology, one understands why to such writers "sincerity"--a word that both McClatchy and Bloom use as a
smirking pejorative--would seem threatening.
Actually, Abdullah’s poem about Pelican State--one of her collection’s few unpolished pieces--is not at all symptomatic of the Adrienne Rich anthology, while the weaknesses of Bloom's book can, I believe, be fairly characterized by McClatchy's own lengthy contribution to that collection. Like one of those wits who imagines himself endlessly amusing, McClatchy's poem, "An Essay on Friendship," rambles on for some two hundred and seventy lines in that excruciatingly sophisticated, three-martini tone peculiar to the academic gentility. More ruinously, the poem's narrative thread is wilfully obscure. McClatchy, who is by no means an untalented writer, and whose poems, though sometimes uninteresting are almost always skillfully composed, tells us in his little explanatory note at
the end of the volume that certain sections of "An Essay on Friendship" will only be understood by readers familiar with Renoir's film, Rules of the
Game. Clearly, then, the poet has only the most minimal interest in communicating much of anything with his reader: whether or not he is
understood is of little concern to him.
Not far from McClatchy's endnote in the Bloom anthology is another telling one, in which Richard Wilbur wryly reports that after his wife had read his poem "Lying," she remarked, "well, you've finally done it; you've managed to write a poem that's incomprehensible from beginning to end." But immediately Wilbur assures us that on second reading she found it "quite forthright" (no doubt with a little cuing), and then tells us that he makes no apology for the fact that the poem requires several readings. "Provided it's any good, a poem which took months to write deserves an ungrudging quarter hour from the reader." But Wilbur's scolding the reader for not spending enough time puzzling out his poem misses the point. One is reminded of Norman Mailer's apology, some decades back, for having used as an epigraph to one of his early collections of essays the admonition: "Do not understand me too quickly." Older and wiser, Mailer had come to understand that if even experienced readers were misapprehending him, the fault was his own:
clarity is the writer's responsibility, not the reader's. Surely when Richard Wilbur's poems are a joy to read, as they so often are, it is because that exquisitely deft versification is the brilliant vehicle for ideas and arguments rendered with lapidary clarity. Here, for example, are the final stanzas of that wonderful "Aubade," in which he argues to his beloved that staying in bed is the most reasonable of her options:
Think of all the time you are not
Wasting, and would not care to waste,
Such things, thank God, not being to your taste.
Think what a lot
Of time, by woman's reckoning,
You've saved, and so may spend on this,
You who had rather lie in bed and kiss
It's almost noon you say? If so,
Time flies, and I need not rehearse
The rosebud-theme of centuries of verse.
If you must go,
Wait for a while, then slip downstairs
And bring us up some chilled white wine,
And some blue cheese, and crackers, and some
Though he believes adamantly that "strong poetry is always difficult," it is noteworthy that Harold Bloom includes in The Best of the Best a good number of poems that are perfectly clear, and these are the poems that are most likely to raise the hair on the back of one's neck: poems by
May Swenson, Kay Ryan, Amy Clampitt, Allen Ginsberg, Ed Hirsch, Philip Levine, and Molly Peacock, among others. Donald Justice is represented with a memorable elegy for Henri Coulette in which the poet asks his friend to "Come back and help me with these verses/ Whisper to me some beautiful secret that you remember from life." Although Donald Hall has a
strained exercise in vatic rage, an ersatz- Ginsbergian rant that strikes a note decidedly false, it is followed by one of his exemplary poems, this one about Jane Kenyon's dying, a poem that is the very model of simplicity, clarity and unadorned honesty. The two poems together make a fine study in the dangers of the postured and the virtues of the sincere, the authentically felt. Also of note are two stunningly powerful and perfectly accessible pieces by Louise Glück. In "Vespers," the narrator argues with God for having let her tomatoes die:
you have a heart, in our understanding of
that term. You who do not discriminate
between the dead and the living, who are, in
immune to foreshadowing, you may not know
how much terror we bear, the spotted leaf,
the red leaves of the maple falling
even in August, in early darkness: I am
for these vines.
All told, Rich's anthology is just about as good as Bloom's, its major virtue being that she has a lively eye for the coherent and the unashamedly human, the openly emotional and exuberant kind of engaged poetry that many American poets have been writing since the 60s. Were there
anthologies filled exclusively with the work of such writers, American poetry would have a fighting chance of regaining its rightful audience. Rich
assuredly does not agree with Bloom that the aesthetic is an autonomous realm independent of political and cultural ideologies, or that poetry is
ruined by social engagement, or that a less rarified, intellectualized poetic is the death blow to our literary culture. Not surprisingly, there is a good deal less here of the mannered rhetoric that pervades Bloom's choices and a good deal more of a poetry awake to the world outside of the poet's head. Since a good two-thirds of Rich's offerings are by well-known, well-respected poets, and since her volume contains, as he grudgingly
acknowledges, the work of several of the same writers that appear in his own, Bloom's claim against it is seriously undermined. Surely it was not discerning taste but sheer petulance that kept him from being able to acknowledge how many fine poems she has brought together in her collection. He might not have been able to appreciate the emotional power of Raymond Patterson's "Harlem Suite" or Luis Alberto Urrea's long, rhapsodic, open-hearted elegy for his father, not because he harbors any racism--he most likely does not--but because that sort of gritty, heart-centered, anti-intellectualized poetry, which owes nothing to the tradition of Wallace Stevens, is the sort for which he has little patience. Though
Bloom's abhorrence of explicit social compassion might have made him immune to the powerful, history-drenched poems of Alicia Ostriker and
Wang Ping, and to the fine, socially engaged ones of Ann Winters, Chase Twitchell, Gary Soto and Alma Villanueva--for compassion, like sincerity
and accessibility, is not a modernist virtue--there are several pieces in her anthology that would undoubtedly have interested him had he not been
in such high dudgeon. He would likely have been drawn to W. S. Merwin's "Lament for the Makers," with its nicely jagged, Dunbar-esque rhythms and off-rhymed couplets, especially given its generous sprinkling of literary gossip, and it is hard to believe he wouldn't have given serious
consideration to "Touch Me," a Stanley Kunitz love poem that is surely going to find its way into numerous anthologies of twentieth-century verse. Both poems share the traditional metrical skills that Bloom, for all his admiration for Ashbery, most admires.
Rich's anthology also contains finely made pieces by Reynolds Price, Jane Kenyon, Naomi Shihab Nye, Yusef Komunyakaa and half a dozen others that would certainly have merited his attention. She is to be congratulated for looking beyond the rhetorical commonplaces of conventional poetry and including pieces that are far removed from the academic mainstream. Not the least of the poems she chose for her anthology is a sestina by Katherine Alice Power, an antiwar radical who is presently serving an eight-to-twelve year sentence for participating in a bank robbery back in 1970 which ended in the murder of a policeman. Her surrender in 1993 provoked enormous national publicity and debate. Power's impressive and touching sestina for her son is a useful example of how to employ a form that even in the hands of competent poets tends to sound forced, formulaic and insincere. On the other hand, the clunkers in the Rich anthology share with Bloom's clunkers the same overriding flaw: they're incomprehensible. And by this I do not mean to suggest that clarity determines the quality of poetry: most emphatically it does not. Surely
much of the most hilariously inept and amateurish verse being written is perfectly intelligible. What I am asserting is that although clarity is by no
means a sufficient condition for successful poetry, it is, in all but the rarest of cases, a necessary one.
And yet for certain poets and critics of our time, as I have been at pains to point out, obscurity is an overriding virtue. What kind of poetry is it, then, that they want? What might it look and sound like? In the texts I have been examining, the most explicit answer to that question comes from
Reginald Shepherd, the third Boston Review correspondent who, implicitly at least, can find little merit in a poetry that is coherently engaged in the world beyond language. Shepherd, like Marjorie Perloff, rejects any poetry that makes so much as a grain of sense, for such poetry, according to him, refuses to "honor language," something that is done, apparently, by treating it as an end in itself. Shepherd wants a poetry of "strangeness and opacity," one that exhibits a "resistance to communication... which restores language to itself," criteria with which Perloff would surely agree. Understandably, Shepherd is reticent to attack Adrienne Rich's anthology
because it contains one of his own poems, so his example of what poetry should not be is drawn instead from Bloom's Best of the Best. He faults
Bloom for canonizing Amy Clampitt, whom he characterizes as an erudite and amiable writer, but one "for whom language has no independent existence: she has something of greater or lesser interest to 'say' and she says it more or less well. But poetry is not versified thought... nor is it amiable or well mannered." In reiterating the aesthetic stance of the Language Poets, it seems curiously off-point for Shepherd to single out Amy Clampitt rather than a less exuberant poet. Surely one hopes there was a reason for his choice beyond the cute pun on her name, just the sort of sophomoric "word-play" that postmodernists are often unembarrasedly given to. But Shepherd could not have chosen a more inappropriate example. Surely there are few contemporaries who seemed as utterly in love with the succulence of words, the intoxicating pleasures of language. If anyone of our era ought by rights to have been characterized as a poet who was language- centered, it is surely Amy Clampitt, a poet who manages to be wildly intoxicating with her language while remaining perfectly intelligible. This is how "My Cousin Muriel," a poem about her dying cousin that Bloom wisely chose to use for The Best of the Best, begins:
From Manhattan, a glittering shambles
of enthrallments and futilities, of leapers
in leotards, scissoring vortices blurred,
this spring evening, by the punto in aria
of hybrid pear trees in bloom (no troublesome
fruit to follow) my own eyes are drawn to--
childless spinner of metaphor, in touch
by way of switchboard and satellite, for
the last time ever, with my cousin Muriel...
But this sort of delicious and truly language- centered writing makes far too much sense for Reginald Shepherd, who tells us in his essay that
poetry ought to be an escape from meaning. Shepherd concludes his brief essay with four lines from a contemporary poem that he admires "because something is happening in them that happens nowhere else." This is his exemplary excerpt:
Vagrant, back, my scrutinies
The candid deformations as with use
A coat or trousers of one dead
Or as habit smacks of certitude.
In the presence of such writing it is difficult to know what to say. Surely in the prison house of language, poets writing in this manner have opted for solitary confinement. If one is going to "escape from meaning" and foreground other qualities, one would imagine that either music, striking linguistic and figurative invention, or deft and original phrasing would be evident. If one is going to be excruciatingly difficult or downright incomprehensible, we need in compensation other virtues. One needs, at the very least, the intensity and profound musical and linguistic skill of
authentic poetic composition. One thinks of the evocative, heartbreaking music of Hart Crane, or the coryambic and often rigorously measured
verse of Dylan Thomas, or the syntactically wrenched and passionate strangeness of Vallejo, or the hypnogogic dream-swirling Dionysian
difficulties of Hopkins or Berryman or Rimbaud or Cesaire, or of Robert Lowell's early work with its headlong velocity and gorgeously gnarled
intensities, or of the strange, disquieting magic we encounter in someone like Antonin Artaud, for whom surrealism was not so much a novel
technique as a desperate means of plumbing his tormented depths. "Resistance to communication" the passage Reginald Shepherd has quoted certainly exhibits. But flattened of affect and bereft of music, this kind of silliness doesn't even have the virtue, any longer, of novelty. That such lines restore language to itself seems questionable--to put it mildly. Given that the defining property of language is communicability, shouldn't this sort of thing be called "Anti-Language Poetry"?
Although poetry often attempts to transcend the limits of language, in an attempt to invent such an idiom legions of twentieth-century poets have
mistaken mystification for mystery. The real mystery of poetry is that it inexplicably opens the reader to that which is all but inexpressible. It is as
though one had used a ladder to climb onto a roof with a spectacular view and then discovered that the ladder upon which one had climbed does not, in fact, exist--to use Ludwig Wittgenstein's provocative metaphor. But mystification, whether of the modernist or post-structuralist variety, is simply the pretense of having climbed anywhere. Poetry, when it is at its most ineffable, transports us to places we had no reason to believe language could take us. What is needed for this task is the most luminous vision, the most receptive spirit and the most crystalline possible clarity of
presentation. Our period's infatuation with the opaque has been, in the end, a seriously misdirected effort. The most eloquent response to that wrong turning was made by Robinson Jeffers more than seventy years ago, when the modernist agenda had hardly begun and long before its
eccentric notions had come to dominate aesthetic discourse. Prescient as ever, Jeffers wrote in the introduction to his Random House Selected
Long ago, before anything included here was written, it became evident to me that poetry--if it was to survive at all--must reclaim some of the power and reality that it was so hastily surrendering to prose. The modern French poetry of that time, and the most "modern" of the English poetry, seemed to me thoroughly defeatist, as if poetry were in terror of prose, and desperately trying to save its soul from the victor by giving up its body. It was becoming slight and fantastic, abstract, unreal, eccentric; and was not even saving its soul, for these are generally anti-poetic qualities. It must reclaim substance and sense, and physical and psychological reality....
Another formative principle came to me from a phrase of Nietzsche's "The poets? The poets lie too much." I was nineteen when the phrase stuck in my mind; a dozen years passed before it worked effectively, and I decided not to tell lies in verse. Not to feign any emotion that I did not feel; not to pretend to believe in optimism or pessimism, or unreversible progress, not to say anything because it was popular, or generally accepted, or fashionable in intellectual circles, unless I myself believed it; and not to believe easily. These negatives limit the field; I am not recommending them but for my own occasions. Let us, by all means, have a poetry of the
most incandescent verbal pyrotechnics, of the most restlessly experimental and original design. Let us have poems that astonish the reader at every turn. Let our poets attend to making it new with nearly as much fervor as they attend to making it true. But on those occasions when we fail to communicate, let us no longer imagine we have succeeded at something larger and grander. Let us not blame our failures on the intellectual poverty of our readers, or on their inability to register complex ambiguities, or on their irritable reaching after fact, or on the ineptitude of their teachers, or on the seductions of the media, or on crass materialism, or on the philistine vulgarity of our culture, or on--well, whatever else seems convenient to blame for our own failures. Let us no longer be gulled into imagining that rhetorical sophistication and verbal panache in the absence of genuine, communicated perception can create a poetry that is genuinely complex, textured, multilayered, exploratory, intuitive and profoundly insightful, a poetry worth careful study. They create, rather, poems that are hardly worth reading through once. Harold Bloom notwithstanding, our situation demands aesthetic and cognitive clarity.
"They have the numbers, we the heights" is the heroic epigraph Bloom uses for his dyspeptic rant against those who would open the doors of
what he calls our "elitist art" and let in some air. They are words attributed by Thucydides to the Spartan commander at Thermopylae. No doubt Bloom, our self-appointed Keeper of the Canon, imagines himself the heroic captain of the last small band of stalwart Western aesthetes, holding the gates of the Temple of Art against the raucous assaults of the parti-colored resenters, the Great Unwashed. But the very mean-spiritedness of his attack belies the pretense that he represents
some nobler and higher ground. The only heights that the defenders of the aesthetic of difficulty have to offer us are the heights of arrogance,
exclusivity, and self-aggrandizement, and the only effect of composing one's poetry from such heights is to insure that it remain chilly, windy, and
unlikely to be heard.
Steve Kowit lives in Potrero, California. His handbook for writing poetry,
In the Palm of Your Hand, is the best-selling book of its type at amazon.com.
He is currently at work on a non-fiction book about the mass illusions
we live by.
Post Edited (10-13-03 17:00)
I definitely vote yes. Difficulty for the sake of difficulty does no one any good.
To paraphrase Kipling: "Ye have read, ye have heard, ye have thought," he said, "and the tale is yet to run:/"By the worth of the body that once ye had, give answer—WHAT DOES IT MEAN?"
I read the Bloom article when it came out, and it struck me as idiocy- 'No, don't take away our dead white men!' Sorry, but if work is good, it's good, and finding good work that was previously ignored due to the author's color or gender is a good thing. (Yes, some work that gets brought up this way is bad, but plenty of the DWMs write bad work as well. Why should they be the only ones getting a pass?)
Kowit doesn't like Bloom much does he?
I don't find Hart Crane and Robinson Jeffers mutually exclusive, both are on my bookshelves. Jeffers, I think, has been more lightly published than Crane but that may just be that Crane is more to the liking of those setting poets to read in universities. There is space too for Eliot and Kipling, Dylan Thomas and Frost, Owen and Rupert Brooke.
Extremism either way is wrong, in my view. If difficult poetry was never published we would not have read the Metaphysicals, much of the Romantics (certainly nothing of Blake), some of the Victorians, almost all of the modernists and post-modernists.
Poetry is a broad church and there is room for all disciplines within. Some we may as individuals not enjoy, inspirational and Hallmark verse for me, 'difficult' poetry for Kowit.
Complaints about difficulty in poetry are not new. Wordsworth was accused of writing nonsense, Hazlitt said of Coleridge:
"'Kubla Khan', we think, only shews that Mr Coleridge can write better nonsense verse than any man in England."
I haven't read the Bloom article but I do believe that poetry has to stand on its own merits. That said, by whose standards do we judge it? By Bloom and the other 'people like us' who are always praising each other's new volumes of verse, or the wider reading public? I doubt that Rich included poets just because they were gay, black, women or any other minority. If she did, I believe she was wrong. If she believed the poets were truly the best of American Poetry, then I commend her for breaking out of the 'people like us' syndrome.
I recently bought The Best American Poetry 2003. 75 poets were featured and, of these, at least 57 appear to be in the 'people like us' category, maybe more. They either teach in university or have completed creative MFA programs under the tutelage of the others. Oh, the editor for the year, Yusuf Komunyakaa is definitely 'people like us'.
So, if the academic circle that contains most published poets is too insular to be truly trusted, who should be setting standards? It would be interesting to run a competition with two sets of judges, the first being from the academics and the other being the public at large writing in to vote for their favorite poem.
Whatever the outcome, there is still room for both these sides and many more too.
In the Palm of Your Hand
I have read that one a couple of times, and Kowit definitely knows what he is talking about, but I fear I must also disagree with his taste in poets. Perhaps I will someday come around to his point of view, who knows.
Stephen, I agree with you and Mr. Kowit about many points he makes in this article. Here are some observations about writers and other creative people in America and other English speaking nations. These are not based on any type of quantifiable facts, but are rather the observations of someone who has read a lot and likes to think for himself:
1. Too many artists today, and a few in the past, substitute obscurity and incomprehensibility of their work for intelligence, or artistic genius. The notion which they are communicating here is often that: if no one but myself can understand my work it must mean that I am more intelligent than they. (Wrong.) Confusion does not = intelligence.
2. Obscurity in one's work to me merely indicates arrogance on the part of the artist. Those artists of true genius, which have stood the test of time are seldom totally incomprehenisble to their peers. Shakespeare, for instance was very popular to his contemporary audiences, though we today often have trouble interpreting his diction and style.
3. Should we sacrifice ethnicity, or other minority representation in our curriculi for the sake of clarity. No, but minority artists of any genre are not monolithic in nature. We can have both diversity and understanding.
4. Truth in poetry. To me the most intriguing part of Kowit's article was the notion that poems have to be a true notion of the poet's life. To me this shows a very clear understanding on the part of Kowit in the nature of writing poetry. I agree with his premise that a poet must communicate his own truth. Even in satirical, fictional, or observational poems I think a poet must be true to the values he/she espouses. If a poet writes as an advocate of ecology one day, and a proponent of slash and burn farming the next, his readers (most notably critics) will call foul and distrust him as a
reasonable reporter of the human condition. We may adopt a persona, play devil's advocate, even try to entertain the ideas of opposing views in our poetry. But, if we have no consistent values which emerge in our words, then the readers will dismiss our work as less important for they will deem that it has been written by one who merely puts words on paper, rather than one who has thought about his message and its impact on others.
I can't wholly agree with you about obscurity equalling arrogance, Les.
Poets of the far past were writing for limited audiences, very often 'people like us' but were still accused of not being capable of being understood by some of their generation or by succeeding generations.
The metaphysicals are a classic case, they remain obscure and Johnson and Dryden considered the work unnecessarily difficult. Johnson said:
"the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together"
Were Donne, Cowley, Herbert and the others attempting to be deliberately obscure? I don't believe so, they wrote in the fashion of their day and attempted to convey their truths.
Similarly with Blake, he was not widely read until well after his death. I am certain that he was not being deliberately obscure but conveying his religious vision.
The Romantics too did not say things in a straight-forward manner.
Eliot argued that it was succeeding generations that had to judge greatness. I agree with that, though I have trouble with his thought that:
"There should always be a small vanguard of people, appreciative of poetry, who are independent and somewhat in advance of their time or ready to assimilate novelty more quickly."
It is easy to dismiss things we do not understand. I have absolutely no appreciation for Damien Hirst in the modern art world. Nonetheless, because I don't understand or appreciate it doesn't invalidate it as art. I suspect that the art he represents is ephemeral and that succeeding generations will not think of him along with Rubens, but that will be for the them and not me to determine.
I am not persuaded that contemporary poets are being deliberately obscure. I do think they are following a fashion and they mostly write for 'people like us'.
Complexity, obscurity have long accompanied our beloved art form but there has always been a place, and still is I think, for the direct, the easy to understand work.
As to truth, I agree with you up to a point. Poets should grow though and a view held today may not be one that is held tomorrow. The poet's poetry should represent that growth and additional experience and we should be able to see the change.
If you have read this thread, this far, you may want to find the recent-ish NEW YORKER MAGAZINE with an article by Jonathan Franzen called "Mr. Difficult" (or "Something Something [of? with?] Mr. Difficult). It's about how over the decades his perspective has changed RE the "difficult novel."
Looks like it is in New Yorker: September 30, 2002, v.78 i.29, but I can't find it online. Next time I am at the library, though ...
It would be great to discuss these issues directly with you, Les, and the other denizens of emule - we should organize an emule convention!!
bump. I'm sure Veronika for one would love to read this one.
Thank you so much for bumping this, Desi!
It certainly was an interesting read.
I always read authors that I strongly agree with with a bit of distrust - trying to come up with some counterarguments. I don't know the American poetry scene as such - I don't know Bloom or any of the critics mentioned. I only know and read the poets I like and most of them write very coherently (not to say with poignant clarity and economy of words).
I think "difficult" is perhaps not the best possible word for it. It can mean all sorts of things.
Heaney's North is - in my view perfectly intelligible, it does have a message and he gets it across - but I wouldn't call it a simple poem or an easy one. And I'm not very sure I extremely like it. But it is a well made poem. It holds its ground. And I rather think Kowit would see it as coherent.
Early Kunitz's poems are more on the symbolist/hermetic side - but still I wouldn't call them unintelligible.
As for poetry that would try to escape meaning (and nothing more) - I am thoroughly puzzled by such a concept.
Thanks again, Desi.
What do you make of this? It's from the latest edition of New American Writing magazine:
Home Unknown Stone
Shh, shh, surest measure––
One minute too minute.
The blue animal lies bleeding
On a field of stars.
No, no word-order to end well
What effort, merely
to sob out its
Tag from fragment: a certain light
Cannot be cited
in that Book that wants invisibility.
That which needs nothing to exist
Fixes accident, each
marriage of the genitive:
Prayer-preliminary to the symmetries in trees.
You have difficult poetry, that requires a bit of effort to really understand, but that is worth the effort. You have obscure poetry, that is impossible to understand even after a lot of effort. I don't like the latter. Private messages should remain private, it doesn't interest me.
I have a lot of friends that first claimed "not to like poetry". However, usually, after sending them a couple of funny ones, or interesting ones that are pretty straightforward, they appreciated them enormously. I think a lot of people are put off by the idea - often reinforced by teachers - that poetry is something intelectual no normal person really understands. It's a shame really.
- that poetry is something intelectual no normal person really understands
That's exactly the type of elitism which I think we need to break down.
Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 10/21/2005 01:56PM by lg.
RE: Home Unknown Stone
You can't tap-dance to it, that's for sure
even with the internal rhymes
are they meant to be whimsical or serious?
Johnny, if one of my students submitted something like this I would ask them quite seriously: "What have you been taking?"
Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 10/21/2005 02:48PM by lg.
Isn't this more like "annoying" poetry?
though I DO like "Tittery Proustian mystery"
but probably for all the wrong reasons
Joron's poem contains some good lines also:
The blue animal lies bleeding
On a field of stars.
But, it goes nowhere. At least I think I know what Latta's talking about. In Joron's poem, I only have glimpses of reason.
At least mine you can tap-dance to
Well, I can't.
Why SURE you can !
(As long as you put those metal thingies on your shoes ! )
And what if I now would tell you I lost both my legs in the gulf war, eh?
Not true, of course, but poets shouldn't take anything for granted!
and this was the end of a very nice intellectual discussion, let's dance now! (without the metal thingies, if you don't mind. I'll probably break my nose with them. Again.)
Veronika, any comments on the poems pasted above?
Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 10/21/2005 10:23PM by lg.
Les, thank you for this practical illustration - I now better understand Kowit's article. (And, of course, still I agree with it.)
I don't know what to make of the two pieces you posted (Latta's obiously a bit more intelligible than Joron's - but only slightly). They don't sound impressive. Or enchanting. Or memorable. My opinion is that they are just badly written. I prefer Jabberwocky anytime (It may not make very good sense - but it sounds great!).
tap dancing and singing "twinkle twinkle little bat ..."
Twinkle Twinkle Little Bat
how I wonder where you at
Wont you have the decency
to talk within my frequency?
Twinkle Twinkle Little Bat
I might as well go ask the Cat
Colours ne knowe I non, withouten drede,
But swiche colours as growen in the mede,
Or elles swiche as men dye with or peinte.
Colours of rhetoryk been to me queynte;
My spirit feeleth not of swich mateere.
But if yow list, my tale shul ye heere
The Canterbury Tales
The Frankeleines Tale.
723-25. Colors of rhetoric are the devices and embellishments of language.
726 The Franklin says that the colors of rhetoric are strange to him, but his performance is a highly rhetorical one indeed.
Looking for love in all the wrong queyntes
I do not know whether it would be a generalisation to say: if the form is difficult (sonnets, villanelle etc.) the subject matter is often coherent; and if the form is less difficult (verse libre) the matter is made more difficult to understand?
Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 10/24/2005 06:35AM by ns.
"Not for me the eloquence
of those who write with such intelligence
no one is really sure
what it is they try to say........"
NS, while all generalizations have their exceptions, I believe you are correct
except for me, but hey, that's just me:
I fabricate contrivances of steel
I cannot tell the charming from the chimes
imagination synchronized to heal
Can’t tell by looking so I go by feel
And feeling numb I must resort to rhymes
I fabricate contrivances of steel.
So if it’s solid then it must be real
I think it is, at least at certain times
imagination synchronized to heal
A molten metal I must now anneal
in order to protect me from the crimes
I fabricate contrivances of steel.
I guess I’ll download something like a meal
I’m clad in gilded former silver dimes
imagination synchronized to heal
So thankful I have knees so I can kneel
and pray that I should never hear the mimes
I fabricate contrivances of steel.
imagination synchronized to heal
Vic, unfortunately, no one said poetry HAS to make sense. And far too many writers take that to heart.
JohnnySC I actually liked that one, it must be the industrialness of it.
Why is a raven like a writing desk?
A. It just says "Nevermore" over and over again.
B. You cannot make it laugh, no matter how hard you try.
C. For no particular reason - you know, accidents happen.
D. None of the above
So, would anyone care to guess? The right answer will win you a 2 hour visit to the brain lobe of your choice. All costs included. Good luck!
The left answer will get you nowhere.
Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 10/24/2005 02:20PM by Veronika.
Some other possiblities:
* Because the notes for which they are noted are not noted for being musical notes. (Puzzle maven Sam Loyd, 1914)
* Because Poe wrote on both. (Loyd again)
* Because there is a B in both and an N in neither. (Get it? Aldous Huxley, 1928)
* Because it slopes with a flap. (Cyril Pearson, undated)
Now to the next question: Is the universe infinite or just really really big?
Well, the last question may be a bit difficult - so let's change it for an easier one:
Does poetry have to make sense?
Oops, that was a rethorical question.
The ravens of a lunatic
the rightings of the sane
the verse of uni infinite
the thoughts of all our train
the cents you make from poetry
is how with life you deal
it's not the sense of all the words
it's how it makes you FEEL
it's how it makes you FEEL
That would make it more like music, which I could buy, buy I doubt that Hugh and other pendants would buy that notion.
I disagree, Les. If we break all literature down to something that everybody understands, then we probably don't have much of the Greeks, little of the Romans and nothing of Joyce. Some should stretch intellectually, that isn't elitism but it may be appreciated by the few rather than the many. And that is all right, I wouldn't press anyone to read anything by Joyce or Horace or Plato. Otherwise, we are left with Harry Potter (which I enjoy) to the exclusion of much wonderful literature and poetry.
What is elitist? If you understand but I don't, is that elitist? If I understand but you don't? What is understanding? What is normal? We read in different ways.
We always should have poetry that attracts new readers but we also need poetry that challenges them.
- that poetry is something intelectual no
normal person really understands
That's exactly the type of elitism which I think
we need to break down.
Les, I agree with James Wright when he wrote:
"Music and meaning run very closely parallel, and enrich each other without confusion. Swinburne confuses, because he sacrifices meaning for music. Keats is enormous because he never, at his best, sacrifices either, but that makes them reflect each other and enlarge each other; so that, if you are paying attention, you never come to the end of the poem."
Poetry makes me feel in many ways. It saddens me, it enrages me, it makes me happy, sad and a myriad of other emotions. Music does that too, and they may meld on occasion, but they also work independently but poetry with plenty of music and no meaning is, for me, ultimately unsatisfying..
it's how it makes you FEEL
That would make it more like music, which I could
buy, buy I doubt that Hugh and other pendants
would buy that notion.
Chesil, you represent a viewpoint that loves art for art's sake. I represent the viewpoint of millions of people who hate poetry. Obscure poetry merely alienates those people further. Not all of the millions would ever read poetry, but some would if they could only understand it.
That does not mean that one can't have obscure themes within their body of work. We do need the Joyces and the Carrolls of the world. But if we continue to produce the type of work I pasted above, I see no reason for those who prefer other reading, to switch to poetry.
Art for art's sake? Not entirely, I truly believe that poetry, and literature in general, is a broad church and that complexity, even obscurity should be available to challenge those that want it.
I very seriously doubt that millions hate poetry, That millions and more are indifferent and would not go out of their way to read it is probable, but to hate requires engagement.
Whatever the naysayers say, poetry is more read today than ever before, there are more literary magazines with poetry as content than ever before, there are more folk studying how to write it than ever before. Of course, it doesn't mean that what they write is worth reading, but they have attachment to the form.
If poetry had to be easy, how much would we have lost of Blake, in particular, but the Romantics in general, the metaphysicals and yes, the imagists.
Once it progressed outside the oral tradition, poetry has often been the preserve of the literate for the most part. I doubt many, outside of a literate upper class, would have heard of Keats during his lifetime, for eaxample. Not completely, of course, and there have been notable poets that have stood outside of that tradition and written for the people. Parts of Tennyson and a lot of Kipling comes to mind.
Please, don't misconstrue. I welcome anything that will attract people to poetry in the first instance, but hope that once attracted they may wish to read deeper. Of course, some modern work is obscure to the point of stupidity, but most is accessible, just stay away from Zukofsky!
Chesil, you represent a viewpoint that loves art
for art's sake. I represent the viewpoint of
millions of people who hate poetry. Obscure
poetry merely alienates those people further. Not
all of the millions would ever read poetry, but
some would if they could only understand it.
That does not mean that one can't have obscure
themes within their body of work. We do need the
Joyces and the Carrolls of the world. But if we
continue to produce the type of work I pasted
above, I see no reason for those who prefer other
reading, to switch to poetry.
Chesil, I for one, would not miss Blake a bit if his work disappeared from the shelves. Poetry may be expanding, but I doubt the quality of it is keeping pace.
There are some new writers I enjoy, but I no longer enjoy pouring over a stanza of poetry to try to find some inner meaning. There is just too much good work out there that only requires me to read and smile.
"If I want to be puzzled I will do a cross word!"
Fair dinkum! what we are talking about here is the nub of the problem that confronts us all when discussing modern art of any kind.
If a work (in whatever medium) is so vague, so complicated, so difficult that we only recognise its worth after being told by somebody else that it has worth or is a work of art to be admired then are we not pretending?
Has this not led us into the position we find ourselves in where if a critic proclaims a painting; a play; a book; a poem as being great it then becomes great while better, truer art languishes.
I once asked a poet what a certain word in one of his works meant and his reply was, "I don't know, but it looks good."
If artists want to produce such stuff good on them. Go ahead but don't try to tell me it is good when in reality it is often and apology for lack of intrinsic ability.
The difficult works that remain from years gone past remain because they had true worth and were understandable given sufficient intelligence and endeavour by the observer/reader.
It is true that art should not cater to the lowest common denominator however let us be very clear about what is difficult and what is gobbleygook!
"If we break all literature down to something that everybody understands, then we probably don't have much of the Greeks, little of the Romans and nothing of Joyce."
To understand means to "get" something more than just the base value of the words used - it has to do with content. So I'd prefer the term accessible.
I would say much of what was written by the Romans and the Greeks is quite accessible - it does take some knowledge, but it isn't just some unintelligible gibberish. Now Joyce is more difficult - and I am not a big fan of Finnegan's' Wake or Ulysses. But I wouldn't categorize either as unintelligible, far from it. As for Blake - one my favourite poems in English was written by him.
I think it's perhaps better to speak of a certain openness towards the reader - the poems have to allow the reader to enter them, feel them, make them his or her own. If a poem seals itself off (even from the most experienced and educated readers) - then it is not likely to survive. Hermetic (as in not accessible straight away - and certainly not accessible rationally) poems can be good - but such a poem then has to work on other levels - it has to have a strong rhythm, an inner music or a sequence of images that creates certain feelings. And not be just some random chaos. It either works or it doesn't. The above posted poems by Latta and that other fellow don't.
I think readers don't like being ignored or told that they are stupid. I certainly don't.
The really "great" art is very often not simply elitist as it can be read on many levels and is therefore accessible to a wider audience - not just the selected few.
"I once asked a poet what a certain word in one of his works meant and his reply was, "I don't know, but it looks good." "
That doesn't necessarily disqualify the word used or the author that used it. The creative process is not entirely a conscious one (it more often isn't than it is) - often a poet may "feel" a certain word is better or needed.
As poetry was compared with music - the situation isn't that different. Very few people (at least where I come from) love modern classical music. For most their appreciation stops with Schoenberg, some know Cage and his work - but that's as far as it goes. I personally don't like it - I prefer the Early Music and its sound. But I consider that a matter of taste - and wouldn't dream of saying that it isn't music. But even so - there are some composers that seem to make it work and other that don't. Some are just better composers.
"let us be very clear about what is difficult and what is gobbleygook!"
Amen to that.
To understand means to "get" something more than
just the base value of the words used - it has to
do with content. So I'd prefer the term
Agreed, a much better word.
I hope I'm not putting words in your mouth, but I also agree with the point I think you are making in the classical music analogy. Many are so absorbed in the poetry of the past that they have little time for the poetry of the present.
"let us be very clear about what is difficult and
what is gobbleygook!"
Who is to say with authority what is gobbledygook and what isn't. I doubt that Blake ever set out to make his work difficult, but I also suspect that not to be true of some contemporary poets. The list of modern poets that I consider to be gobbledygook may overlap with the lists of others but we will have healthy differences of opinion over some. The same would be true of any list of 'difficult' poets.
Poetry is a broad church and all are welcome, but history is brutal and most poets today will not be remembered in 100 years, just as the majority of poets writing 100 years ago are now forgotten.
In his lecture on the Social Function of Poetry, Eliot said:
"It matters little whether a poet had a large audience in his own time. What matters is that there should always be at least a small audience for him in every generation. Yet what I have just said suggests that his importance is for his own time, or that dead poets cease to be of any use to us unless we have living poets as well. I would even press my first point and say that if a poet gets a large audience very quickly, that is a rather suspicious circumstance: for it leads us to fear that he is not really doing anything new, that he is only giving people what they are already used to, and therefore what they have already had from the poets of the previous generation. But that a poet should have the right, small audience in his own time is important. There should always be a small vanguard of people, appreciative of poetry, who are independent and somewhat in advance of their time or ready to assimilate novelty more quickly. The development of culture does not mean bringing everybody up to the front, which amounts to no more than making everyone keep step: it means the maintenance of such an elite, with the main, and more passive body of readers not lagging more than a generation or so behind."
Over the years, I have moved towards Eliot's view on this. Anthologies chosen by popular vote tend to select poems of some age and little that is new. I don't believe this is because no good poems are being written today, but that we tend to attachment to the poetry we heard as a child. In that respect, I think in 20 years time, we might well see Jane Kenyon, Donald Hall, Robert Creeley (for you Peter!), Beat poets and others chosen.
I have been carried away and written far too much.
"Who is to say with authority what is gobbledygook and what isn't?"
Precisely the problem!
I firmly believe this is the attitude that has led us into the mish mash of contemporary art. As I have previously said, "The emperor's new clothes syndrome is now a pandemic." Most are afraid to voice their opinion when it comes to art of any kind for fear of being out of step with the establishment.
A difficult poem is not gobbledygook. Unintelligible poorly constructed poems are! If it has worth it will survive, if it doesn't, it wont.This is why so many modern poets and their work are forgotten and consigned to where they were headed in the first place.
For goodness sake the reason the public don't like or buy the majority of contemporary poetry is they don't like it, as simple as that! Whatever the current poets are trying to say (if anything at all) they are not succeeding.
It is very much like someone giving a speech that no one can understand. The speaker will be unsuccessful, the audience dissatisfied and the whole thing a waste of time.
The old master's works survive and their popularity remains because they were and are great. They had something to say and they said it well!
They had something to say and they said it well!
Amen to that Vic. I choose to look at poetry as a craft. One either makes a finely crafted poem, or he/she doesn't. Fine craftsmanship includes artistic elements, but it does not include camouflage and smokescreens to keep out the uninitiated.
I do not belief good art needs to be blunt, but it does need to be intelligible.
I fabricate contrivances of steel.
imagination synchronized to heal
I like the sound imagery in these lines.
Thanks ns !
An Art Teacher once told me that non-representational art (abstract) should at least be "pleasing to the eye" or if not pleasing, then at least "Interesting to the eye"
Poetry in my opinion should follow the same ...to be pleasing or interesting to the ear.
Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 10/26/2005 11:55AM by JohnnySansCulo.
The Uncyclopedia, which is really a fun read, only goes to show that people have way too much time on their hands these days.
Elliot Ness: Don't you have more important things to do?
But l'm not doing them right now.
There, there Peter. I'm sure your grandchildren will come to your rescue.
vic jefferies Wrote:
A difficult poem is not gobbledygook.
Unintelligible poorly constructed poems are! If it
has worth it will survive, if it doesn't, it
wont.This is why so many modern poets and their
work are forgotten and consigned to where they
were headed in the first place.
Isn't that what I said? That history will consign most to obscurity.
I can't for the life of me understand why anybody would pay a lot of good money to buy an original work of art by Damien Hirst or most of the other Turner Prize winners for that matter. Still, nobody thought much of Van Gogh when he was alive. Similarly in poetry, metaphysicals was not a complimentary term when first coined to describe the writings of Donne, Herbert and others and Keats was picked apart by the leading critical journal of his day. We believe they were wrong, and our successors may well consider we are wrong in our choices. I'd like to think that Ginsburg will be remembered and Zukofsky consigned to some very dusty library shelf but I don't know. That's my point, it isn't us that will decide, it is down the path and we may well find ourselves spinning in our graves!
For goodness sake the reason the public don't like
or buy the majority of contemporary poetry is they
don't like it, as simple as that! Whatever the
current poets are trying to say (if anything at
all) they are not succeeding.
If it isn't the public, then I really would like to know who is buying the vast number of poetry books that are released and sold each year. Who, for example, was buying Birthday Letters in such numbers that it got into the UK best seller listings? Few, beyond Byron, have managed to sell out spectacularly, and Byron was probably as much about his reputation than a terrific interest in poetry. Nonetheless, reality is that more, not less, people buy poetry today than ever before and, judging by the fairly thin selection of the 'old masters' available in my local B&N, they are buying contemporary poets.
They're probably buying them as gifts !
Frederick Fronkensteen: Werewolf
Eyegor: There......THERE wolf !
Another indication that poetry is proliferating is the number of websites dedicated to it.
They are all my doing ! I reveal myself to be Doctor Metaphorico ! and my Evil League of Muses will vanquish your weak poemo-brains !
" They're probably buying them as gifts !"
to people they don't like!
119 000 000 hits on the search "Poetry"
I loved the uncyclopedia link! Thanks.
I'm picturing the scene....Happy Birthday, here's a book of poetry!
I thought you LIKED Poetry!
I DO ! What the hell is THIS?
Off the wall question #429:
Desi, are you the one who zapped the Spyware spam, or did one of the other moderators return from Brazil?
Off the wall reply:
that was me.
And now I'm writing something anyway: Johnny, you had me laughing out loud. Again.
Off the wall question #430
Les, did you close the physical journey thread? I wanted to reply to Hugh. That was very funny too!
"Funny how? "
Joe Pesci - Goodfellas
Les, did you close the physical journey thread?
Yes, I did. I figured Hugh's comments were as close to a summation of those curious Aussie kids' questions as we're going to get here at the mule.
There's another Physical journey thread, if you'd like for me to bump it to the top.
I did not know I needed salvation. I do like complex people. And I find complex events challenging. People who change their opinions from time to to are also interesting. I love poetry, one poem at a time. I do not care for parochial people or critics or people who do not recognize the value of difference...blah, frigerator dog said. I forgot I was talking to you ,Les, since I dofind you open-minded.
I suppose I have already said enough,...........however, this is a subject dear to my heart and I relish the opportunity to state what I think about "difficult poetry."
For what seems like eons I have been told that I simply do not understand what some of the modern writers are doing in terms of poetry when I say that I do not like a certain poem of form of poetry!
Well, I believe I do understand: for the most part it is often drivel disguised under the cloak of "it is so good, although I can't really explain it to you. I mean how do you explain art?"
Was and is Shakespeare difficult? Well, for me, at least, his work often is. However, it is not unintelligible, it is not pretence, it is recognised because of its genius not because of publicity nor trendy fashion and I in all my poor ignorance am still able to appreciate some of it.
I seriously doubt that there is a single book of contemporary poetry published anywhere in the world that sells 50, 000 copies in a year.
Although, I have read that biggest selling author in the USA each year is still Mark Twain!!!
Could it be that he did not write in a difficult style rather in a style that people like, understand and value?
Without a doubt the biggest selling poetry books in Australia remain the works of AB Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson. Both "bush balladists" who died in 1942 and 1922 respectively. I don't have the figures but I am positive they would outsell virtualy all of the contemporary poets put together every year, and more importantly obviously they are remembered!!!
So I suggest if you have something to say, follow their example and say it plainly in a way the people will understand and appreciate, whilst maintaining your art!
That is the challenge that has faced authors and poets from the beginning and those who have accepted that challenge and won are those we remember and revere today.
Vic, someone must experiment in new forms. I'm not the one to stretch the envelope, but I respect the writers and readers who are so motivated.
However, I feel as you do that the most widely read authors remain those whose works are not incredibly deep, nor mysterious.
I retire now to my Fortress of Platitudes.
to prepare for the battle with WhitMan and Robert Freeze
POW ! SOCK ! BOFFO !
"So, you would use your Stream of Unconsciousness on ME, will you?"
"Is your uniform Poetry-proof?
Is not the Poetry proof enough. Lexicon Luthor?"
"you are defeated, Sylvia PlathWoman !
Johnny, no use to pound Pound or swill on Swinburne. Just accept the fact that many readers still like their works.
I don't like Blake, but obviously other people do, probably the authors of textbooks.
Blake? Thor's secret identity?
Les Luthor, you ARE evil !
You add a lot to the discussion Johnny.
Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 10/28/2005 04:43PM by lg.
It's certainly better than arguing with you about something we will never agree upon !
True, we'll leave that to Ian!
It is dear to mine too, Vic. There is a huge amount of inaccurate information about the difficulty of modern poetry. I happen to read a lot of it, and the greater share is not confusing but crafted carefully and straightforward to understand. Sure, there is a lot of junk out there and some deliberately and stupidly difficult work, but that would be true of every generation.
I don't suppose many, or any, poetry book sells 50,000 copies a year. Given that a book of fiction is considered successful if it sells in excess of 5,000 copies it would be asking a lot.
No, Mark Twain is not the best selling author in the US, Dan Brown is by a long way at present. Does his work compare with Twain, I don't think so but history will judge.
Me, I'd read Keats over Banjo any day. Probably Eliot, Auden, Medwin, Hall, Snyder and Kenyon too.
Vic Jefferies Wrote:
I suppose I have already said
enough,...........however, this is a subject dear
to my heart and I relish the opportunity to state
what I think about "difficult poetry."
For what seems like eons I have been told that I
simply do not understand what some of the modern
writers are doing in terms of poetry when I say
that I do not like a certain poem of form of
Well, I believe I do understand: for the most part
it is often drivel disguised under the cloak of
"it is so good, although I can't really explain it
to you. I mean how do you explain art?"
Was and is Shakespeare difficult? Well, for me, at
least, his work often is. However, it is not
unintelligible, it is not pretence, it is
recognised because of its genius not because of
publicity nor trendy fashion and I in all my poor
ignorance am still able to appreciate some of it.
I seriously doubt that there is a single book of
contemporary poetry published anywhere in the
world that sells 50, 000 copies in a year.
Although, I have read that biggest selling author
in the USA each year is still Mark Twain!!!
Could it be that he did not write in a difficult
style rather in a style that people like,
understand and value?
Without a doubt the biggest selling poetry books
in Australia remain the works of AB Banjo Paterson
and Henry Lawson. Both "bush balladists" who died
in 1942 and 1922 respectively. I don't have the
figures but I am positive they would outsell
virtualy all of the contemporary poets put
together every year, and more importantly
obviously they are remembered!!!
So I suggest if you have something to say, follow
their example and say it plainly in a way the
people will understand and appreciate, whilst
maintaining your art!
That is the challenge that has faced authors and
poets from the beginning and those who have
accepted that challenge and won are those we
remember and revere today.
Johnny: It’s certainly better than arguing with you about something we will never agree upon !
Les: True, we'll leave that to Ian!
Now, now, Les, watch it, or I might deconstruct you and feed you to my thesaurus.
Haven’t commented yet, but this is an alluring thread. As the man said in the Irish pub “Is this a private fight, or can anyone join in?”
I find much to agree with, and bits to disagree with, in many of the posts. The kindest comment I personally would make about Andrew Joron and John Latta, judging purely by their work that you have posted here, Les, is that some people further the divine purpose for this world by serving as Bad Examples, or as Lightning Rods for Ridicule. However I have no quarrel with those who fossick the literary dumps and find items they value in what others have discarded.
I’m not going to be drawn by Chesil’s latest comment into assessing the relative merits of John Keats and Banjo Paterson. The ocean is vast and there are ports aplenty for poetic R&R. A wise seafarer doesn’t openly compare a brunette in one with a blonde in another.
As for the rest of the controversy over ‘difficulty’ in poetry, to adapt that great Shakespearean quote you posted recently on another thread, my grandfather clock of illumination and articulation is still incapable of striking, or it might strike 13 and lose all credibility, so I’m looking for the right key to wind it.
Edited 2 time(s). Last edit at 10/29/2005 04:22AM by IanB.
I’m not going to be drawn by Chesil’s latest
comment into assessing the relative merits of John
Keats and Banjo Paterson. The ocean is vast and
there are ports aplenty for poetic R&R. A wise
seafarer doesn’t openly compare a brunette in one
with a blonde in another.
I think you have read more into my comment than was there, Ian. I was expressing a personal preference and not making any form of comparison.
It's a good distinction Chesil, and I really did understand your comment the way you meant it. I trust my last post was recognised as mostly tongue in cheek. Malice toward none, etc.
Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 10/29/2005 07:57PM by IanB.