It’s been the fashion at least since the Modernists to complain that contemporary poetry has become difficult, and that this difficulty has alienated the readers who used to flock to poetry as they now flock to John Grisham novels and American Idol. I am not sure what constitutes the easy poetry these people look back to: Shakespeare? Donne? Milton? I’m also not sure when and where this massive poetry audience existed. The great majority of the nineteenth century counterparts of those who now watch television and read pulp fiction were barely literate. They certainly weren’t seduced away from their immersion in Keats and Browning by the advent of the mass media. Conversely, Dylan Thomas was one of the most popular poets of the Nineteen Forties and Fifties, on both sides of the Atlantic, and his work is nothing if not “difficult” (and it isn’t nothing, though it is somewhat forgotten today). And both avant-gardeners and poetic populists are often too busy bashing T.S. Eliot to remember that he practically filled arenas when he gave readings. Today John Ashbery and Jorie Graham, whose work is usually considered to be challenging at the least, are among our most popular poets, prominent enough to have each been profiled in The New Yorker, not usually known for overly taxing its readers' attention.
In the perennially popular “death of poetry” discourse, there’s a consensus that people don’t read poetry because it’s too hard, too “elitist" (another word that should be expunged from the English language: it's never descriptive, only pejorative). I’ve always thought the opposite, that most poetry isn’t hard enough, in the sense that’s it’s not interesting or engaging enough. It doesn’t hold the attention—you read it once or twice and you’ve used it up. That engagement I look for and too often miss is a kind of pleasure, in the words, the rhythms, the palpable texture of the poem. It’s the opposite of boredom.
Literary critic Vernon Shetley, who observes that most contemporary (“mainstream”) poetry has grown less, not more difficult, since the Moderns, argues in his book After the Death of Poetry: Poet and Audience in Contemporary America that “only by increasing the level of intellectual challenge it offers can poetry once again make itself a vital part of intellectual culture.” I would add that poetry’s challenges and pleasures are far more diverse than the intellectual, though I do believe that the intellectual is an essential element in poetry, that, to modify Eliot’s dictum, the poem must be as intelligent as possible.
Many years ago I sat in on a class of Ted Kooser’s in which he asserted that a reader wants to be led by the hand through a poem, that readers have no patience with being baffled, no tolerance for mystery. I had to interject that I hated to be led by the hand through a poem. I’d rather that the poet assume that I can make my own way through a poem, though I do prefer that there at least be pathways, even if they’re not paved and lit. I don’t object to being baffled, though I may not wish to remain in bafflement indefinitely. Just as mystery can be part of a person’s allure, so mystery in poetry can be a lure. Yeats calls this “the fascination of what’s difficult.” One wants to solve the mystery, or at least better understand its source. Sometimes one discovers that the mystery isn’t to be solved, but still that process of exploration has helped one to know it better, to experience it more fully. (Superficial mystery is merely shallowness posing as depth. As Howard Nemerov notes, some poets “wish to make common matters singular, easy matters hard, and shallow thoughts profound.”) To quote a perhaps unlikely source, Billy Collins has written that, “in the best of all possible worlds of reading, dealing with difficulty can be listed among poetry’s pleasures” (“Poetry, Pleasure, and the Hedonist Reader,” in The Eye of the Poet: Six Views of the Art and Craft of Poetry, edited by David Citino).
What I cannot bear, as a reader or as a person, is to be bored. For a poem to be boring is much worse than for a poem to be baffling. In Marianne Moore's words, "Paramount as a rule for any kind of writing--scientific, commercial, informal, prose or verse--we dare not be dull" ("Idiosyncrasy and Technique"). (Dullness is as much the enemy of poetry now as it was when Pope wrote.) Incomprehension and even frustration can seduce in poems just as they can in people: many objects of desire are obscure, but their outlines are clear. What does the sunlight breaking through the clouds that have hovered all day, then filtering through the leaves of the giant live oak tree in my back yard, “mean”? It is, I saw it, I felt in on my skin. You can see something too, feel that slight difference in the temperature when you step out from under that tree, your feet sinking a little into the thick layer of leaf litter. Too many bad poems, dull poems, are just meaning, with nothing or too little doing the meaning. I know what they mean, but I can’t be bothered to care. As Charles Bernstein notes, some poems are easy because they have nothing to say. Conversely, some poems are difficult for the same reason, in an attempt to cover up their vacuity.
It’s often said that “difficult” poems exclude potential readers. I feel excluded by poems that give me nothing to do as a reader, that offer me no new experience and nothing I didn’t already know. It’s wearying to read such poems, it makes me want to watch music videos instead, where at least one sometimes gets some glimpses of shirtless guys with six-pack abs. Any good poem gives the reader something, what Allen Grossman calls the interest of the world: feelings, sensations, experiences. T.S. Eliot wrote that genuine poetry can communicate before it’s understood. I would say analogously that good poetry can and should give pleasure before it’s understood. As Wallace Stevens noted of his supreme fiction, it must give pleasure. It’s this pleasure that makes one want to understand the poem. Whether my poems are always immediately graspable in terms of theme or subject matter, I’ve always tried to give the reader something, in terms of language, imagery, rhythm, etc., to make the poem a sensual experience. Understanding something can be a pleasurable experience (it can also be intensely painful), but in poetry as in life there are other pleasures than understanding. In Billy Collins’s words, “The grasping of a poem’s meaning, however provisional it may be, is only one of the many pleasures that poetry offers” (op. cit.).
I don’t “understand” some of my favorite poems. I don’t know what they “mean,” but I know what happens to me when I read them; I know the experience I’ve had and its effect on me. Hart Crane has been one of my favorite poets for over twenty years, but until I taught him I didn’t “understand” “The Broken Tower.” I’m glad that I do now, but only because that understanding has enriched an experience I was already having.
Geoffrey Hill observes that “difficult poetry is the most democratic, because you are doing your audience the honour of supposing that they are intelligent human beings. If you write as if you had to placate or in any way entice their lack of interest, then I think you are making condescending assumptions about people. I mean people are not fools. But so much of the populist poetry of today treats people as if they were fools.” I don’t want to be patronized or condescended to, as a reader or a person; I would prefer that the poet assume that I am both intelligent and interested.
The ideal reader is on the one hand willing and alert enough to actively participate in the poem’s production of meaning and on the other hand demanding enough to insist that the poem provide the material with which to produce such meaning and perceptive enough to see whether or not these pieces actually do form some kind of gestalt, however unexpected its shape. The poem may not adhere to standard, linear logic, but it must have a logic of its own.
Difficulty is not equivalent to complexity. Despite their deceptive surface simplicity, Ben Jonson’s poems on the deaths of his children, “On My First Daughter” and “On My First Son,” are complex; but they are not difficult. Many of e.e. cummings’s more typographically wayward poems are difficult, but not complex. This is another way of saying that they are obscure.
There is a difference between difficult poetry and obscure poetry. All obscure poetry is difficult, but (contrary to popular opinion) not all difficult poetry is obscure. Obscurity is a lack of clarity; it is a flaw.* Difficulty is not a virtue in and of itself, but obscurity is always a defect. Marianne Moore wrote that “one should be as clear as one’s own natural reticence allows one to be” (“Idiosyncrasy and Technique”). This can be rephrased as, one should be no more difficult than necessary. But it may prove necessary to be very difficult indeed, although there are some poets for whom difficulty is an end in itself, either for the sake of a sense of superiority over the reader or other poets, or for the sake of a sense of rebellion or transgression. Some forms of "difficulty" are as rote as the most well-rehearsed stump speech. I never set out to be “difficult” in my poems, nor do I try to hide things from the reader. Moore asks, “How obscure may one be?” and replies, “I suppose one should not be consciously obscure at all” (“Humility, Concentration, and Gusto”).
I take Moore’s admonition to refer to the clarity of the materials, of the saying and showing itself, not of what it means or how it’s to be interpreted. This is the clarity of an experience: the poem is an experience the reader has, and though one doesn’t always know what the experience “means,” one knows what happened, what one experienced. But if what happened isn’t clear, then there’s no possibility of making meaning out of it. As Joan Houlihan points out, incoherence is neither mysterious nor difficult; it's just another source of boredom. Moore again: “Nor can we dignify confusion by calling it baroque” (“Humility, Concentration, and Gusto”). The poet should provide the reader with the elements out of which the meaning or meanings can be assembled or produced, and the pieces of the mosaic should be clear and distinct (like Descartes’ ideas), even if their relations to one another are not immediately apparent. “Sometimes it appears to candid reflexion that great works of art give no meaning, but give, instead, like the world of nature and history itself, materials whose arrangement suggests a tropism toward meaning, order and form” (Howard Nemerov, "The Difficulty of Difficult Poetry," in Reflexions on Poetry & Poetics).
The idea of the artwork as an experience also produces a basis for aesthetic judgment. One can (and should) ask, Does this artwork provide a unique, distinctive experience, one that hasn’t already been experienced, known, understood? Walter Benjamin describes shock and distraction as the modern mode of consciousness (or unconsciousness), in which most of our experience is not really experienced, doesn’t actually exist for us at all. Although art should be the antidote to this non-experience of distraction, most of what we read simply repeats and re-presents what has already been experienced (or non-experienced). A real work of art makes us stop and pay attention. It breaks through our crust of habit and routine.
I believe that all artists want to communicate with some audience or another, though that potential audience may vary enormously in size and/or kind. If one truly cared nothing about making contact with others, however few or select (not every poem need be for every reader, or even for the same reader at every time and in every mood), there would be no reason to make art. One could simply commune with oneself within the confines of one’s own mind. But the will to communicate does not define the what or the how of communicating. A poem can communicate itself, in the way that a classical Greek statue or a Jackson Pollock painting does. This is another way of saying that poems are, or should be, experiences in themselves, and not just accounts of or commentaries on experience; they should be additions to the world, not simply annotations to it. If people think of poems as merely road markers or sign posts to something else, it's no wonder that they don’t want to read them. I’d rather go to a place myself than look at a sign pointing out the direction to the place.
Those who define or evaluate a poem in terms of its content are making a serious category mistake. Poems are utterances, but they are first and foremost aesthetic artifacts, events and occasions in language. They often contain propositional statements, but those propositions are, in Susanne Langer’s term, sheerly virtual, the form of content, the shape of saying. It is this which distinguishes poetry from most other modes of discourse, in which the expressive or communicative function of language is dominant and in which the materiality of language is suppressed or ignored, or at best used only instrumentally to produce a desired effect in the reader or listener.
As Howard Nemerov has written, “The flat statement that poetry is or ought to be communication, even if it happened to be true, would be uninteresting. Some poetry, not necessarily the most interesting sort, has the clear intention of communicating—meanings. Other poetry has the clear intention of deepening the silence and space about itself…. Meanings, generally speaking, are derived from the world and meanings are communicable, but is the world communicable? The work of art imitates in the first place world, it does not immediately imitate meanings except as these occur in the world” (op. cit.).
Walter Pater famously wrote that “All art aspires to the condition of music,” and the musical analogy is very suggestive. On the one hand, music is intensely expressive, and on the other hand it’s hard (at least with instrumental music) to pin down just what is being expressed. Also, music is by definition organized and ordered, or it isn’t music, just noise or random sound, and the “meaning” of a piece of music is inextricable from its structure. Similarly, a poem means as much through its form, its shape in space and time, as through its content or “subject matter.” Poetry is a way of saying, as Auden almost wrote. The what of saying, though not insignificant or irrelevant, is something that poetry shares with any other mode of discourse or expression: it’s the how that sets it apart.
A destination is also an end, but as Nietzsche wrote, the end of a melody isn’t its goal. Too often understanding is the prize you get after you’ve consumed the poem. Now that you’ve taken it apart to get the decoder ring, you’re done with the poem, you can throw it away. I don’t see poems as things I want to get over with, any more than I see life as something I want to get over with. The end of life is death, and we start dying from the minute we’re born. But on the road to the contagious hospital there are muddy fields full of new growth if we just take the time to look closely. We’ll get down that road soon enough. Death is contagious, people are always catching it; the time we don’t take will be taken from us. There’s no need to hurry oneself along.
I will allow Howard Nemerov the last word. “If poetry reaches the point which chess has reached, where the decisive, profound, and elegant combinations lie within the scope only of masters, and are appreciable only to competent and trained players, that will seem to many people a sorry state of affairs, and to some people a consequence simply of the sinfulness of poets; but it will not in the least mean that poetry is, as they say, dead; rather the reverse. It is when poetry becomes altogether too easy, too accessible, runs down to a few derivative formulae and caters to low tastes and lazy minds—it is then that the life of the art is in danger” (op. cit.).
*Vernon Shetley offers a different distinction between obscurity and difficulty, “using the former term to refer to those elements of language that resist easy semantic processing, and the latter for the reader’s response to those elements. Obscurity, then, refers to features within a text, such as allusion, syntactical dislocations, and figurative substitutions, while difficulty refers to something that occurs between reader and text, one kind of possible response to textual obscurity” (After the Death of Poetry). Besides not understanding why his terms could not just as easily be reversed (a reader could find a text obscure, hard to see, hard to read, because it is difficult), I will not venture here into a phenomenology of reading.
I have deleted the post "Howard Nemerov on Difficulty in Poetry," as many of those quotations have been incorporated into this piece.