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On Difficult Poetry II

I was going to reply in kind to BeccaB's excellent comment to my earlier post, but I think I've wound up with another post altogether. Here she is on my chivvying of Robert Pinsky's endorsement of "difficulty" in poetry: Michael … Read More

By / April 23, 2007

I was going to reply in kind to BeccaB's excellent comment to my earlier post, but I think I've wound up with another post altogether. Here she is on my chivvying of Robert Pinsky's endorsement of "difficulty" in poetry:

Michael — I'd just forwarded your recent props to Kipling to my father (a big fan, who's had us stay at Naulakha)–and though I enjoy "Barrack-Room Ballads" I also love Wallace Stevens and James Joyce. I have no desire to make a fetish of difficulty for its own sake, but I don't see that as being what Pinsky is doing here…

I can't read that paragraph from Pinsky as saying the reader be damned — quite the else. As I take it, he's saying that many human beings take pleasure in surmounting various kinds of difficulty (why climb Everest?)–and thus, for readers who like this particular kind of challenge, difficult texts can be a source of pleasure (rather than some sort of sick joke perpetrated by the writer at the reader's expense — which is how some of my students have tended to regard them). If you like the challenge of making a hole-in-one or dancing on point and I like reading Ulysses, we both enjoy the challenges of difficulty in different realms–and there's nothing wrong with that. But it wouldn't make any sense for me to say that you shouldn't enjoy them because I prefer putt-putt with windmills and a bit of waltzing, and can't see the point of devoting all that time and energy on the green or at the ballet barre.

I certainly wouldn't say that all sorts of literary difficulty are equivalent or are equally beloved by all readers: me, I'll take Gerard Manley Hopkins over Ezra Pound any day. (Though if you put Penmaen Pool up against Sestina: Altaforte or In A Station of the Metro, I think GMH may get smacked down.) But after I've said "that was a bloody good poem," I might well like to have a go at figuring out how Hopkins's "expert use of caesura or spondee" helped to make it so good.

I guess my gripe with Pinksy's thesis is that poetry derives from an oral and musical tradition, which to my mind means it's supposed to be memorable. I tend toward conservatism in my appreciation of it, although I will say my lyric hero Auden had his moments of airy-fairy difficulty, too. Though even these were enthralling in I think the way you say you find Joyce to be: "The pillar dug from the desert recorded only / The sack of a city." Lovely, but what fucking pillar and which bloody city, Wystan?

Joyce's best stuff — "the heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit" — is usually parsable. Nighttime, an arboreal universe. Got it, James. But as Martin Amis has said of Finnegan's Wake, it's an 800 page crossword clue and the answer is "the."

Difficulty in performance is not the same as difficulty in reception. To watch Tiger Woods play golf or Michael Jordon play basketball is to be electrified by a physical prowess that's as beautiful as it is rare. But their achievements are also bound to a seldom remembered and less inspired fact: the adherence to pre-established rules and conventions. Indeed, Woods and Jordan's talents are all about this lucid adherence: This is how you hit a golf ball perfectly; this is how you land a basket perfectly.

In poetry, we are of course wowed by technical proficiency (Larkin was a true master here, as was Hardy before him), and I'll confess I was a touch hyperbolic in my riff about how poets appreciate each other's work. But I still think abtruseness of meaning, anarchic hijinks with form, wordplay for its own sake — all these traits hinder rather than help the purpose of language. (And you're talking to someone who worships Nabokov because, for all his "I differ from him Conradically" duds, he still managed to wonderfully describe his nymphet heroine Dolores Haze as "dolorous and hazy," among other things.)

Shakespeare's obsessively picked over ambiguities notwithstanding, what does one really come away with when faced with preening, impenetrable symbols? "Making it look easy" is one of the highest critical compliments we can pay to an artist; the execution is so deft because the result is simplicity itself, while still being almost impossible to imitate.

Kipling excels at this: Who has read "making mock 'o uniforms that guard you while you sleep / Is cheaper than them uniforms, an' they're starvation cheap" and not been at once stirred by the sentiment while also impressed by the vivid turn of phrase? (Your father's my new best friend.) Or Wilfred Owen, another bard of warfare, whose own corpse-and-trench-strewn verses instantly commit themselves to memory. I know of no one else who could make a piece of artillery sound this almighty and terrifying:

Be slowly lifted up, thou long, black arm, Great gun towering toward heaven, about to curse; Sway steep against them and for years rehearse Huge imprecations like a blasting charm! Reach at that arrogance which needs thy harm, And beat it down before its sins grow worse; Spend our resentment, cannon, — yea disburse Our gold in shapes of flame, our breaths in storm.

Yet for men's sake, whom thy vast malison Must wither innocent of enmity, Be not withdraw, dark arm, thy spoilure done, Safe to the bosom of our prosperity. But when thy spell be cast, complete and whole May God curse thee, and cut thee from our soul!

"[W]hom thy vast malison / Must wither innocent of enmity." The first thing I'd do is realize how fine this phrasing is; the second thing is discover that malison and enmity are both Middle English Anglo-French words, perhaps not accidently employed because of Owen's dual postings in Essex and Joncourt in World War I, and a good way to underscore the continental pity of that shattering conflict.

So yeah, bring on the difficulty. Just be sure it's easy to understand first.

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