Monday, January 29, 2007

On Alvin Feinman

Alvin Feinman was born in 1929 and raised in New York City. Though he has been named by Harold Bloom as part of the essential canon of Western literature—Bloom has written that “The best of his poems stand with the most achieved work of his generation”—Feinman is not included in any of the standard anthologies of modern or modern American poetry, not even Cary Nelson’s recent Oxford Anthology of Modern American Poetry, which explicitly aims at recovering and rediscovering neglected writers. Nor is he listed in the purportedly comprehensive Contemporary Authors.

Feinman’s first book, Preambles and Other Poems, was published by Oxford University Press in 1964 to praise from such figures as Allen Tate, Conrad Aiken, Geoffrey Hartman, and Bloom. (Bloom’s discussion of this volume in his book The Ringers in the Tower: Studies in Romantic Tradition is the only extended treatment of Feinman’s work of which I am aware.) Now out of print, it was reissued with a handful of additional poems by Princeton University Press as Poems in 1990; that volume is also out of print. Feinman’s lack of a wider reputation is partly due to the unabashed difficulty of his poems, though as Harold Bloom writes, “their difficulty is their necessity" (The Ringers in the Tower, 315). In larger part, this neglect is due to his distaste for the rituals of literary self-promotion.

Alvin Feinman is a true visionary poet, heir to Stevens and Crane in the modern line and, further back, to Blake, Wordsworth, and Shelley, poets who invented human consciousness as a subject matter for poetry. In Harold Bloom’s description, “the central vision in [Preambles] is of the mind, ceaselessly an activity, engaged in the suffering process of working apart all things that are joined by it" (op. cit., 315). Bloom calls this “a tragedy of the mind, victim to its own intent, which is to make by separations” (op. cit., 316).

Feinman’s poems demand much of the reader (at times resisting the intelligence almost successfully, as Stevens said that the poem should), but they offer many rewards in return, including dazzling imagery (light and the work light does is omnipresent) and dense, rich verbal music. Like much of the best poetry, they can be experienced and enjoyed before they are understood.

John Hollander has written that Feinman’s poetry explores the indefinable boundary between the visual and the visionary. In one of the blurbs for Preambles, Conrad Aiken wrote that Feinman’s was “true metaphysical poetry.” His poems constitute an epistemological and phenomenological investigation of the world, a probing of the surfaces of things that moves from seeing to seeing-into to seeing-through to the other side of appearances, exposing the luminous interior of the material world. As Bloom has written, the “opposition between the imaginative self and reality seems as central to these poems as it was to Stevens’ and as grandly articulated.”

Alvin Feinman is also the only person in my writing life whom I could truly call a mentor. I have had professors from whom I’ve learned, who have taught me valuable things about my work (sometimes intentionally, sometimes inadvertently or even against their will). But few were truly formative, and fewer still were both consistent and constructive in their attention.

Alvin, with whom I did my undergraduate creative writing thesis at Bennington College, never “did anything” for me but help me write better poems. He never did anything to me but make me see that however pleased I was with something I’d written, it could always be better, had to be better if I were to call myself a poet. For Alvin, to be a poet was always an aspiration, not something that one could claim to be. I think if I’d have asked him he would have said, “I would like to be a poet.”

Alvin expected everything of poetry, his own and others’. As he once said to me, “Poetry is always close kin to the impossible, isn’t it?” There was no point in reading a poem unless it was great, and no point in writing a poem unless it (not you: it) aspired to greatness. He was especially alert to the occasions when a poem failed to live up to its own possibilities, when it fell away into the mundane from the finer revelations it proposed. Usually the poem failed by settling for the merely personal. For Alvin, one’s interest in oneself had no place in poetry, and in his poems one will find not face but mask. But it’s a mask more alive than the great mass of mere faces.

Alvin also helped me learn the difference between whether something was done well and whether it needed to be done at all. He warned against the dangers of what he called “fluency über alles,” of writing something because you can or because you want to. What you want has no place in poetry: only what the poem wants matters. He once said of a poem of mine that he saw little in it but my desire to write a poem, and he saw accurately. But Alvin also taught me to listen more carefully, to look more closely, to be more aware of the poem’s intentions. His is an example I am constantly trying to live up to.

Pilgrim Heights

Something, something, the heart here
Misses, something it knows it needs
Unable to bless—the wind passes;
A swifter shadow sweeps the reeds,
The heart a colder contrast brushes.

So this fool, face-forward, belly
Pressed among the rushes, plays out
His pulse to the dune’s long slant
Down from blue to bluer element,
The bold encompassing drink of air

And namelessness, a length compound
Of want and oneness the shore’s mumbling
Distantly tells—something a wing’s
Dry pivot stresses, carved
Through barrens of stillness and glare:

The naked close of light in light,
Light’s spare embrace of blade and tremor
Stealing the generous eye’s plunder
Like a breathing banished from the lung’s
Fever, lost in parenthetic air.

Raiding these nude recesses, the hawk
Resumes his yielding balance, his shadow
Swims the field, the sands beyond,
The narrow edges fed out to light,
To the sea’s eternal licking monochrome.

The foolish hip, the elbow bruise
Upright from the dampening mat,
The twisted grasses turn, unthatch,
Light-headed blood renews its stammer—
Apart, below, the dazed eye catches

A darkened figure abruptly measured
Where folding breakers lay their whites;
The heart from its height starts downward,
Swum in that perfect pleasure
It knows it needs, unable to bless.

Landscape (Sicily)

I have seen your steeples and your lands
Speared by awkward cactuses and long birds
Flatten your yellow stones, your worn mountains.

Surely where those hills spilled villages
Toward the sea I should have wanted
Savagery, a touch icier than physical sport;

But vegetation withered from a forest
Of inconclusive starts, memory only
Gathered to a shade in the sun-sorrowed square.

A shade, sun-struck, whose hold will cover
The play of boys in blood-red clothing
And call your seasons to a wall of flatted rhythms,

To a slow summit of retreating days, days
Like winds through given linen, through dust.
These green reductions of your ancient freedoms--

The stunted olive, the lizard fixed
In soundless grasses, your yellow stones
Rubbed by the moon, the moon-queeled beaches,

And all asceticisms grown separate, skilled
To plump intrinsic endings--the fig-tree's
Sudden, rounded fingers; history

At the close will cripple to these things:
A body without eyes, a hand, the vacant
Presence of unjoined, necessary things.


Now sudden, or again, this easy
Quieter. You will know its fall
And what it lies on,
All, sign, metal, tar,
One long and skeletal reductum

As, but warm, this side the pane
You purchase sense for.
But the gods give down
Chill unities, the pulver of an under-
Lying argument, assuager

Of nothing nameable: you know
The light snow holds and what
Its bodyable shape
Subdues, the gutter of all things
A virgin unison; and how

The glass that frames this waste
Of contour lames to blur
The baffled figure
To the drift he scurries through
—Blear hazarder. More bold,

The discrepant mind will break
The centrum of its loss, now
Sudden and again,
Mistake its signature, as though
Snow were its poem out of snow.

November Sunday Morning

And the light, a wakened heyday of air
Tuned low and clear and wide,
A radiance now that would emblaze
And veil the most golden horn
Or any entering of a sudden clearing
To a standing, astonished, revealed…

That the actual streets I loitered in
Lay lit like fields, or narrow channels
About to open to a burning river;
All brick and window vivid and calm
As though composed in a rigid water
No random traffic would dispel…

As now through the park, and across
The chill nailed colors of the roofs,
And on near trees stripped bare,
Corrected in the scant remaining leaf
To their severe essential elegance,
Light is the all-exacting good,

That dry, forever virile stream
That wipes each thing to what it is,
The whole, collage and stone, cleansed
To its proper pastoral…
I sit
And smoke, and linger out desire.

My short essay on Alvin Feinman's poem "True Night" appears in the anthology Dark Horses: Poets on Overlooked Poems, edited by Joy Katz and Kevin Prufer.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Defining Difficulty in Poetry

Mark Granier accurately notes that in my post on the topic I failed to define what I meant by poetic difficulty. In order to clarify, I offer here my anatomy of difficulty. I present the several kinds of difficulty in order of ascending complexity and difficulty of resolution.

There is, first, lexical difficulty: the poem contains words with whose sense we are unfamiliar, or words used at variance from or even contrary to their dictionary definitions. Hart Crane’s poetry is a perfect example of such difficulty, full both of arcane and recherché words (“infrangible,” “transmemberment”) and of words given idiosyncratic or private meanings, as in the use of the word “calyx” to mean both a cornucopia (ironic, since the bounty is death’s) and “the vortex made by a sinking vessel” (Crane's explication) in “At Melville’s Tomb.”

Then there is allusive difficulty; the poem that alludes frequently eludes. The poet refers to something we’ve not heard of, assumes a piece of knowledge we don’t have. If one doesn’t know that Herman Melville wrote obsessively about the sea, then one won’t understand that the ocean itself is treated as his final resting place, though the man himself died on dry land. If one does not have “But at my back I always hear/Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near,” and the rest of “To His Coy Mistress,” in one’s ear, the relationship of poem and title of Archibald MacLeish’s “You, Andrew Marvell” will appear rather opaque, and some of the poem’s sense of doom may be lost. Sometimes the allusion is only implicit: one will miss some of the force (and some of the humor) of Frost’s “For Once, Then, Something,” if one misses the presence of Narcissus in its description of a man who sees “Me myself in the summer heaven” reflected in the water of a well. Poems considered difficult often allude to material outside the common literary or intellectual frame of reference. Modernist poetry is particularly difficult in its wide range and idiosyncratic, often inexplicit, deployment of allusion.

There is also syntactical difficulty, the obstacle of complex, unfamiliar, dislocated, broken, or incomplete syntax: one cannot discern or reconstruct the relations of the grammatical units. Swerving away from the conventions of prose syntax has long been an integral part of poetic practice: as Howard Nemerov explains, it is “precisely the sort of rhetorical and musical variation which properly belongs to poetry and distinguishes it from prose” (“The Difficulty of Difficult Poetry,” in Reflexions on Poetry & Poetics). The long, Latinate sentences of Milton’s Paradise Lost are one example of this kind of difficulty; the fragmented, fractured syntax of much experimental poetry is another. In the case of Paradise Lost, one can parse the syntax with patience and careful attention; in many avant-garde poems, the syntax is intended to remain indeterminate, deliberately unparsable.

There is also semantic difficulty: we have trouble determining or deciding what a poem means, we cannot immediately interpret it. (It is important here to remember that sense and reference are distinct: sense is internal to the poem, as it is to language itself. As linguist David Crystal elucidates in How Language Works, “Sense is the meaning of a word within a language. Reference is what a word refers to in the world outside language.” From this perspective, it's more useful to think of the poem as a field of meanings than as a thing that means something else, a container for or vehicle of meaning.) Semantic difficulty encompasses figurative difficulty, in which we can’t unpack the poem’s metaphors, or can’t determine what is tenor and what is vehicle, especially when, as is frequently the case, one or the other is omitted, or when the presence and process of figuration is only implied. (This might be called the difficulty of elliptical figuration.) Difficulties interpreting tone, determining the stance and attitude the poem takes and wants the reader to take toward its material, would also fall under the heading of semantic difficulty.

Semantic difficulty can in turn be broken down into difficulty of explication and difficulty of interpretation. Some poems present both kinds of difficulty, some only one or the other. In the case of explicative difficulty, the reader cannot decipher the literal sense of the poem: “What is this poem saying?” One encounters this in Hart Crane’s “At Melville’s Tomb,” and he wrote an extensive explication of the poem for Harriet Monroe, then editor of Poetry. In the case of interpretive difficulty, one grasps what is being said on the literal level, but doesn’t know what it means, what it is meant to do. John Ashbery's poems, usually syntactically and explicationally clear, often present this interpretive difficulty. To say that one doesn’t know what a poem means, if one understands its literal sense, is to say that one doesn’t know why it’s saying what it’s saying. The reader asks, “Why am I being told/shown this?”

It is semantic difficulty which readers are usually experiencing when they say, “I don’t understand this poem.”

Then there is formal difficulty, what John Hollander calls the difficulty of problematical form: one cannot ascertain the poem’s shape, cannot hold it in one’s head as a construct. Or one cannot determine what kind of poem it is, and thus doesn’t know how to read it, in much the same sense that one might try and fail to “read” a person. The reader cannot determine or recognize the formal contract (on the analogy of Hollander’s concept of the metrical contract) to which the poem asks him or her to agree. This difficulty is most commonly encountered with poems that play with or violate conventions and expectations, that try to break and/or recreate form: remembering always the intimate relation of form and content, which, as Creeley wrote, are extensions of one another. The question the reader asks is, “What kind of poem is this?”

In the case of formal difficulty, one could add the possibility that the reader understands the terms of the poem’s formal contract, but refuses or feels unable to accede to them. Many American poetry readers today, raised on free verse, find it difficult to read metrical and/or rhyming poetry. They can’t hear its shape, can’t feel its rhythms. Ron Silliman has written that he can’t hear the rhythms of most British poetry. He can’t grasp its aural conventions; its sounds don’t make sense to his ear. This type of formal difficulty can be called rhythmic difficulty.

Formal difficulty is a particular case of what George Steiner, cited by Shetley, calls modal difficulty, my final kind. When we experience modal difficulty, “we fail to see a justification for poetic form, the root-occasion of the poem’s composition eludes or repels our internalized sense of what poetry should or should not be” (Shetley, After the Death of Poetry). Steiner actually writes, “what poetry should or should not be about,” but I broaden his statement to encompass not just topic or occasion but the poem’s status and recognizability as a poem. In the case of modal difficulty, a reader asks, “What makes this a poem?”

When people call a poem difficult, they are generally experiencing either semantic difficulty (“I don’t know what this poem is saying” or “I don’t know why this poem is saying what it’s saying”), formal difficulty (“I can’t see/hear the shape of this poem”), or modal difficulty (“I don’t recognize this as a poem”).

Another way to divide up the field would be to distinguish between difficulties of explication (which would include lexical, allusive, and syntactic difficulty), difficulties of interpretation (which would comprise the several varieties of semantic difficulty), and difficulties of recognition (which would encompass both formal and modal difficulty). These categories, of course, can and do overlap to a certain extent.

All of the kinds of difficulty I have enumerated and described are violations of readerly expectations. All readers, no matter how catholic in their tastes and in their knowledge, come to poems with some or another set of expectations. Readers may and do vary widely in their expectations of a poem, and they may have different expectations of different poems and different kinds of poems, but it’s impossible to approach a poem as if one were a Lockean blank slate. Every reader encounters poetic difficulty of some kind at some point.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Short Thoughts on the Long Poem


I am much occupied with the question of the long poem and major poetry. It has always been my goal not just to be a poet but to be an important poet, to be a poet that matters. I’ve never seen the point of doing anything if one is only to be competent at best. Inevitably then, the question arises: Must one write a long poem in order to be an important poet, let alone to be a major poet? It seems these days that everyone is writing a long poem of some kind of another: a sense of project, of continuity, of writing by the book rather than by the poem, is de rigeur in certain circles. As Jasper Bernes, a former student, a friend, and a wonderful poet, whose kind words on his blog about me as a teacher are much appreciated, has written, “We are in a historical moment…where the collection or miscellany of poems/writings has had its star dimmed by the long poem, the serial poem and [the] proceduralist or mixed-genre book.” This moment seems interestingly parallel to that of the mid- and late-nineteenth century, when it was incumbent upon every poet who aspired to major status to write a book-length poem, preferably an epic of one kind or another.

On the one hand, I have always longed toward the longer work, lusted after the architectonic sweep of “the major poem.” While my attention span has lengthened (when I was a teenager I had trouble extending a poetic thought beyond a single line), I am still a sprinter rather than a long-distance runner; my arcs exhaust themselves, especially given my detailed attention to word set next to word. I envy those who can go the distance, who can stay in the race for page after page. On the other hand, I’m suspicious of the American obsession with size. Bigger is not always better, as in personal tragedies or even daily irritations, and concision is a virtue in any kind of discourse. Often in reading a long poem I think, “were all these words really necessary?” I’m all too aware of the pages going by, each more slowly than the last, until I’m mired in the middle of a muddy track with no final goal post in sight. As Dr. Johnson said of Paradise Lost, no one ever wished it longer.

Perhaps one can say of the cult of the long poem what Adorno wrote of the nineteenth century cult of the majesty of nature: “Such a cult is a reflex of the bourgeois delusion of grandeur, of the social preoccupation with quantities and record bests and also of bourgeois hero worship” (Aesthetic Theory 103).

Since the early nineteenth century, that is to say since Beethoven, the culture hero of classical music, the symphony has been regarded as the pinnacle of the composer’s art. To be able to sustain a musical idea over the arc of a symphony has been the test of a great composer. For the arch-symphonist Mahler, greatness meant monumentality. But a symphony is not defined merely by length, but by its integral structure; it excludes the extraneous in a way that tone poems, for example, do not. By this criterion, few modern and contemporary long poems would qualify.

However respected they may be, those who chose not to write symphonies, like Debussy, or who worked only on the small scale, like Satie, whose claims to unseriousness should perhaps not be taken seriously, or Webern, whose seriousness is not in doubt even among his detractors, are often regarded as somehow lesser, diminutive not just in the length of their productions. (Webern did write a piece he called a symphony: it lasts less than ten minutes.)

Debussy did, however, write an opera. From the seventeen hundreds, before Beethoven, through at least the nineteen thirties, opera has exerted a magnetic pull on composers, and composing an opera can also stake one’s claim to majority. This has especially been the case in the wake of Wagner, whose reinvention of opera almost displaced the symphony from its place at the pinnacle of the classical music hierarchy. Interestingly, while a single opera can suffice to accredit a composer as major (just as a single long poem, “when that long poem is good enough, when it has within itself the proper unity and variety” [Eliot, On Poets and Poetry 44], can credential one as a major poet: whatever their merits as poems, how many actually read Milton’s Paradise Regained or Samson Agonistes?), one needs to have written more than one symphony for one’s symphonizing to count toward major status. One needs not just to have composed a symphony, but to be a symphonist.

Why is a lyric poet so often considered “mere” when compared to a writer of the long poem? There is an element of the will to power in the will to write a long poem, a macho aspect (for both male and female poets) that’s both alluring and repellent. Writing a long poem, a book-length poem, proves that one can tough it out over the long haul; to be a writer of brief lyrics is a little wimpy. Some might consider the long poem to be patriarchal, authoritarian, an assertion of phallic power and domination. Thinking of the long poem as the attempt to take hold of a major theme, to make a major statement and stake one’s claim on greatness, I’m reminded of Adorno’s admonition: “It is silly to think that art can augment its dignity by dealing with some august event or other. More often than not this augustness is the upshot of an authoritarian ideology, specifically of respect for power and magnitude” (Aesthetic Theory 214-215). Viewed more positively, the will to write a long poem shows ambition and scope; the capacity to carry out that ambition shows determination and strength. In Milton’s words, “Fame is the spur.” (Thanks to Henry Gould for reminding me of this quote.) But James Longenbach points that, if done out of obedience to the necessities of the poem (some poems ask to be sonnets, some ask to be epics), rather than to the demands of the poet’s ego, writing a long poem can be conceived of as an act of humility.

As Jasper puts it, more neutrally (and, probably, more fairly) than I have done, “writing a wonderful poem turns out to be, in the end, not all that hard…. Producing an object that lies between two flaps, though, whether a collection or a ‘book,’ seems somehow, in my experience, more difficult.” I am much less sanguine about the abundance, let alone the over-abundance, of good poems, let alone “wonderful poems,” but I take Jasper’s point that on a certain level the short lyric can be seen as less demanding, of the writer and the reader, than the long poem. There remains the question of whether those demands justify themselves in the rewards that the poem yields, for either party. In fairness, Jasper also acknowledges this question, without attempting to answer it: “the drawback to the popularity of the book over the collection is that that book’s concept, idea, base may be used as an apology for…tedium without recourse to any of the arguments for the value of tedium.”

Because I am not that kind of writer, or have not yet been that kind of writer (I can hardly predict the writer that I will be), the question troubles me. Is it a failing in me that I haven’t written a long poem, that I proceed from poem to poem, that I don’t have a project? Is the lack of such a project equivalent to the lack of a poetics? (I leave aside, for now, the question of what it would mean to “have” or “not have” a “poetics,” or whether it’s even possible not to have one of some sort or another, articulated or not.) And what about the possibility that the project replaces the poem, that, as so often happens, the idea overtakes the object, the text is read as intention rather than as aesthetic experience. Jasper’s ruminations conclude with this admonition: “let’s not confuse the book with poetry, and let’s not forget about the possibilities that the individual, and even [the] short, poem (or piece) offers—however much the weak minded have asked us to believe that such a notion is inherently bourgeois.” (Perhaps because I’ve never been bourgeois or even close, it’s never been clear to me what’s so bad about it.)


In his essay “What Is Minor Poetry?” T.S. Eliot allows that a poet may be accounted major even if he or she has not written a long poem. His example is George Herbert, but another obvious example (to us if not to Eliot) would be Emily Dickinson. He also points out that we would consider John Donne a major poet even if he had never written his epistles and satires (indeed, those are probably the least-read of Donne’s works), and would likewise so consider William Blake had he never written his prophetic books. On the other hand, while Eliot writes that “The difference between major and minor poets has nothing to with whether they wrote long poems, or only short poems,” he goes on to say that “the very greatest poets, who are few in number [he names only Shakespeare and Milton], have all had something to say which could only be said in a long poem” (On Poets and Poetry, 47).

Following on Eliot, Henry Gould points that the long poem is not only a formal but also an intellectual construct. The long poem is one outcome (not the only possible one) of what James Longenbach calls “the big hunger,” the will to grapple with the largest possible questions. Mahler believed that the symphony should contain and/or construct an entire world. Many long poems seek to encompass or create a world, perhaps even the world.

While most poets considered major have written at least one long poem, to write a long poem, a book-length poem even, does not in itself suffice to make a poet major. Otherwise Edwin Arnold, author of The Light of Asia (a poem Eliot mentions with childhood fondness), would be a major poet. All that’s required to write a long poem is stamina and a good dose of chutzpah. To write a good long poem, on the other hand, a poem worth the reader’s investment of time, attention, and energy, is quite another matter. In Eliot’s words, “It might seem at first simpler to refer to the minor writers of epics as secondary, or still more harshly as failed great poets. They have failed, certainly, in the sense that no one reads their long poems now: they are secondary, in the sense that we judge long poems according to very high standards. We don’t feel that a long poem is worth the trouble unless it is, in its kind, as good as The Faerie Queene, or Paradise Lost, or The Prelude, or Don Juan, or Hyperion, and the other long poems which are in the first rank” (op. cit., 41). To write a very long poem which is worth reading is undoubtedly a major accomplishment, even if it does not necessarily make one a major poet but, again, to be a major poet doesn’t mean that one must write a long poem worth reading.

As Eliot indicates, though, it is not necessarily the case that a long poem is what makes a major poet major, or even important. (I’m writing as much of reputation as of intrinsic quality: my focus is on what confers “majority” upon a poet.) While In Memoriam is undoubtedly a major work, it’s not to The Idylls of the King that we turn when we turn to Tennyson. Browning’s The Ring and the Book was always, I think, more admired than read, and now it is not even that. “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” “Owl’s Clover,” and “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” (all of them long, none of them quite book-length) are all fine poems, though “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” is a bit discursively expository, and there are sing-songy aspects to “The Man with the Blue Guitar”: “He held the world upon his nose/And this-a-way he gave a fling.//His robes and symbols, ai-yi-yi—/And that-a-way he twirled the thing.” But it is not primarily for them that we, that I, at least, treasure Wallace Stevens. Ezra Pound’s debatable standing as an important poet rests much more on his short lyrics (and by no means even most of those) than on The Cantos, let alone on “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” or Homage to Sextus Propertius. (His importance as a literary figure, an editor, theorist, and propagandist, is beyond question.) It’s not because of Paterson that we read William Carlos Williams; indeed, that poem is hardly read in its entirety at all. Though H.D.’s Trilogy is full of lovelinesses, and attracted a great deal of attention at the time, largely due to its wartime themes, it’s not now the basis of her reputation. (Considering the presence of lines like “Evil was active in the land,/Good was impoverished and sad://Ill promised adventure,/Good was smug and fat,” perhaps that's for the best.) Nor is her Helen in Egypt, though I'm quite fond of it. But of the American Modernists and their immediate successors, few did not at least attempt a long poem, if not an epic of some kind: only Louise Bogan (wedded to “the stripped, still lyric” as she was), e.e. cummings, Robert Frost, and Marianne Moore come to mind.


Critic Joseph Conte writes that “The long poem has been the measure and the lifework of many significant 20th-century American poets. Yet the term long poem is a notoriously vague descriptor applied (by poets and critics alike) to poems of vastly different lengths and forms. One can discriminate, however, between those long poems in the 20th century that maintain the organizational structure of the epic and those that adopt the random and incomplete process of seriality. Epic poems by 20th-century poets adapt or renovate forms whose theoretical and structural underpinnings were set in earlier periods. The series, or serial poem, is remarkable for being the long form that is entirely new in 20th-century poetics” (“Long and Serial Poetry,” in The Facts on File Companion to 20th-Century American Poetry, edited by Burt Kimmelman, 283).

In his essay on Tennyson’s In Memoriam, Eliot writes that “Tennyson’s long poems are not long poems in quite the same sense as those of his contemporaries. They are very different in kind from Sordello or The Ring and the Book….Maud and In Memoriam are each a series of poems…. In Memoriam is unique: it is a long poem made by putting together lyrics” (“‘In Memoriam’,” Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot, edited by Frank Kermode 241, 243). If we conceive of the string of lyric poems comprising Tennyson’s In Memoriam as a series (M.L. Rosenthal and Sally Gall consider the poem too discursive, too meditative, and too thematically consistent to qualify under their definition of a poetic sequence), or if we think further back to the sonnet sequences of the English Renaissance, from Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella to Spenser’s Amoretti, and not excluding Shakespeare’s sonnets, I’m not sure how new the series or serial poem really can be said to be. Like Conte’s postmodern serial poem, these also accede to flux and mutability; indeed, many take it as their topic. But Conte’s schema, though too centered around the specific concerns and claims of his book Unending Design: The Forms of Postmodern Poetry, is still useful.

Conte also points out, in attempting to account for the turn toward different models of the long poem than the epic, that “The [failure] of several modernist epic poems to cohere or achieve their goals, including The Cantos and Paterson, and the distaste for the hierarchical structures and belief systems that frame them [I question this easy elision of forms and their significances] has led many postmodern poets to serial composition” (op. cit., 285). Conte also notes the discontent with and restlessness within the confines of the short poem that Jasper Bernes discusses: “Poems written in many loosely associated parts also signify the impatience of poets with the short personal lyric” (ibid.).

In somewhat different and strikingly broader terms, for M.L. Rosenthal and Sally Gall, the genre they call the modern poetic sequence is “the modern poetic form within which all the tendencies of more than a century of experiment define themselves and find their aesthetic purpose….The sequence has been [our major poets’] great vehicle for discovering the full possibilities of dynamic interplay among poems and fragments conceived under the same ultimate psychological pressure or creative impulse” (The Modern Poetic Sequence: The Genius of Modern Poetry vii). Rather than being organized narratively or thematically, the modern poetic sequence is based on what they call lyrical structure: “The modern poetic sequence, then, is a grouping of mainly lyric poems and passages, rarely uniform in pattern, which tend to interact as an organic whole. It usually includes narrative and dramatic elements, and ratiocinative ones as well, but its structure is finally lyrical. Intimate, fragmented, self-analytical, open, emotionally volatile, the sequence meets the needs of modern sensibility even when the poet aspires to tragic or epic scope” (op. cit. 9). Rosenthal and Gall cite Whitman’s Song of Myself as the first modern poetic sequence, but also look back to Tennyson’s Maud, though in their view that poem does not quite shake off the constraints of plot: it occupies “the very meeting point of long poem and sequence” (op. cit. 19).

If Conte’s categorization seems too arbitrarily restrictive, Rosenthal and Gall’s seems overly capacious. Though they make a (not very clearly defined) distinction between the long poem and the poetic sequence, every extended poem of the last hundred years or so, or set of poems that is not strictly and solely narrative, even every book of poems that can in some way be seen as linked or unified, qualifies as a modern poetic sequence, whether so presented or not (though their rather hefty book includes no mention of Oppen or Zukofsky, nor of masterpieces of black modernism like Langston Hughes’s Montage of a Dream Deferred or Melvin B. Tolson’s Harlem Gallery). They sweep so much into their category—including Dickinson’s fascicles, Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, Yeats’s Words for Music Perhaps, Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology, The Waste Land, The Cantos, Paterson, Stevens’s “The Auroras of Autumn,” Muriel Rukeyser’s Elegies, Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts, David Jones’s The Anathemata, Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns, Lowell’s Life Studies and Day by Day, Berryman’s 77 Dream Songs, Ginsberg’s Kaddish, Sylvia Plath’s last poems, Ted Hughes’s Crow, Galway Kinnell’s The Book of Nightmares, and many individual poems that are only a few pages long—that it loses all descriptive value. It’s hard to see what all these very different works share besides taking up more than a few pages.


It seems to me that there are three ways to proceed into and through a longer poem. Though in a different context altogether, the critic and poet James Longenbach has summed them up well: “We know how to move forward depending on the syntax we employ, and if the word ‘because’ puts one foot purposefully in front of the other, if the word ‘and’ permits us to wander, the word ‘or’ forces us to stagger” (The Resistance to Poetry, 83). I would say that “because” corresponds to narrative, something following from something in a line, however curved or crooked: in E.M. Forster’s example, the king died and the queen died of grief. The word “or” corresponds to digression, casting out and circling back: the king died in his sleep, or a tornado struck city hall, or the day of his death was a cold dark day, or somewhere someone had lamb stew for lunch, or I can’t remember what I meant to say, but I’m sure it had something to do with the king: wasn’t lamb his favorite meat? “And” would correspond to segmentation, the poem in sections, the serial poem, this and then this and then this: the king died one Saturday at noon, and the queen died on Monday at three, and the bells rang all weekend and then rang all week, and the day of the king’s funeral was rainy and in the fifties, and several of the courtiers caught cold and were bedridden, and the day of the queen’s funeral was not that same day, and the castle was painted green except in those spots painted blue. Unless they were yellow. Both digression and seriality or segmentation are variations of what Longenbach has called disjunction.

And so there are three modes by which to move and be moved through the long poem. There is narrative, raveling the thread of story (the word ravel means both to wind and to unwind), finding our way out of the labyrinth or feeling our way deeper within, hoping that there’s an Ariadne at the end of the thread, or at least an interesting minotaur. (As Bugs Bunny says in his hairdresser persona, “In my line of work you meet lots of interesting people, but the most interesting ones are always the monsters.”) Narrative is the oldest mode of the long poem, threading from The Epic of Gilgamesh and unspooling in various forms through The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, The Divine Comedy, The Faerie Queene (these last two are as much philosophical allegories as stories in verse), Paradise Lost, and so on and on and on. Wordsworth’s The Prelude may be considered as a psychological narrative, with plentiful digressions, the story of the creation of a consciousness. (Indeed, Wordsworth can be thought of as having invented subjectivity as a subject for English language poetry.) Though it seems that almost every Anglophone poet in the nineteenth century attempted a book-length narrative of some sort or another, the long narrative has been considerably less popular since the advent of the Modernists. One might fit James Merrill’s Ouija board epic, The Changing Light at Sandover, which digresses within a strongly narrative frame, here. Vikram Seth’s 1986 The Golden Gate, momentarily popular as a novelty item, is a three hundred page verse novel about San Francisco Bay Area yuppies. I’m reminded that what was remarkable about the dancing bear wasn’t its skill or grace, but that it danced at all.

While finding one’s way in and/or out of the labyrinth can sometimes be exhilarating—the thrill of meeting the minotaur a revelation (if one survives), Ariadne’s kiss a rapture—in my reading experience too often the narrative poem just leaves one with a handful of used string, not good for much of anything and of no interest in itself. Here I am, at the heart of the labyrinth or at its door, and what do I do now? Perhaps we’ve simply been through too many labyrinths by now: the thrill of winding up that spool of string is gone.

Digression is another way to proceed, dropping one thought to pick up another, beginning and then beginning again, but always on some trail or another, leading to another trail and so forth. Flow Chart by John Ashbery, our supreme poet of progression by digression, is the perfect, and perfectly lengthy, contemporary example. Digression ultimately derives from Freudian free association and Joycean stream of consciousness. The assumption is that there is some significance (in both senses of the word) to the elements that come to the mind and the order and manner in which they do so. Otherwise, it’s just rambling and blathering, like that of a senile grandparent. The pleasure of digression is wandering and stumbling upon, as in the Surrealist calculated drift through unfamiliar urban neighborhoods or the Situationist dérive, noticing how certain areas, streets, or buildings resonate with states of mind and desires. I wonder as I wander.

The pleasures of getting lost are balanced against those of finding one’s way home. When it fails, digression can feel pointless and aimless (activity is not action), an extended getting nowhere: true randomness is always boring, as is the willed wackiness so common in contemporary poetry. To misquote Longenbach quoting the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, if it is a joy to be lost, it is a disaster not to be found. As Adorno writes in Aesthetic Theory, “‘Origin and destination are the same’: if there is any truth in this statement at all, then it must be in the field of art” (98).

Even if you retrace your steps and take a different branching of the road, you’re never taking the same trip twice. Beginnings are always the most exciting part of a journey, the parts most full of promise and surprise. Stay with them too long and the promises are either broken or prove stultifying (is that what I wanted?), the surprises stale (oh, that again). But to travel by veering, to move forward sideways, to wander and see what you stumble across (best to walk slowly, you might miss something on the way, or miss your footing at least)—that’s always an adventure.

Another way, the most popular in our age of distraction and the short attention span, is to break the journey into stages, to take several journeys at once: the serial poem or poetic sequence, the poem in sections, some of which follow, some of which are simultaneous in time or place or both, some in different voices, some different perspectives on the same object, looking at it in the round. Many of the longer poems I admire are made up of accretions, constellations, series or sequences of smaller units, rather like life, in which we never see the whole picture, are told the entire story. (What omniscient narrator could tell us that, even if we were around after our own deaths to hear it?) Ideally, their collocation forms a gestalt, a result greater than the sum of its parts. When such a poem is unsuccessful, the elements just pile up like dirty dishes or bills one doesn’t want to open, or just one of those endless lines of traffic lights that each turns red just as you get to it: one damned thing after another—again, like life at its most tedious. Conte writes that “the series is an ongoing process of accumulation,” but seriality can feel like mere listing, the mere accumulation of things that multiply but don’t add up, this and then this and then this ad nauseam.

For Conte there is something new under the poetic sun, and it is the serial poem. Though I question Conte’s claims for its uniqueness or special suitability to our times, almost all of what are considered the major long poems of the Modernist period and beyond are serial or at least segmental in form and method. Though Conte accounts The Cantos as epic and not serial, on ideological rather than aesthetic grounds, and with Mussolini trotted out for sensationalist effect, the poem is clearly serial in form. Perhaps works like The Cantos and H.D.’s Trilogy and Helen in Egypt, among others, might call for a new category of the serial epic. Conte cites such diverse examples of the serial poem as Williams’s Spring and All, which mixes verse with rather skewed prose essays on poetry and the imagination, George Oppen’s Discrete Series (not, in my view, a book-length sequence, though published as his first volume: it takes up only ten pages in the second volume of the Library of America’s American Poetry: The Twentieth Century), and open-ended series such as Nathaniel Mackey’s “Song of the Andoumboulou” and “mu,” Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s Drafts, and Robert Duncan’s “Passages” (I would add “The Structure of Rime”), which are not bound within the confines of any single book. Many more examples of the modern and contemporary serial or segmented poem could be adduced, though I will not do so here. Suffice it to say they are sufficient to the day.


And so I return to the questions with which I began. Is it necessary for a poet to write a long poem to be a major, an important poet? And why is there such a strong perceived connection between length and importance?

My sometime ambitions and my habits and tastes are somewhat at odds with one another. I ask myself, “Why do you want to write a long poem when you don’t in general want to read long poems? Is it sheer envy of the boys (and girls) with bigger toys?” Neither as a writer nor as a reader am I an exponent of the long poem. In general I find the experience of reading a long poem burdensome; it wearies me. My commitment is to the numinous lyric. I am an adherent of Keats’s directive that the poet load every rift with ore, but it’s impossible for the extended lode of the long poem, at least of a through-composed long poem, to be all gold. In “The Philosophy of Composition,” Edgar Allan Poe denies the possibility of the long poem, which he holds to be at best a series of short poems strung together. (This is an accurate description of at least one species of the genus “serial poem.” Hart Crane said that The Bridge was not an epic, but a "long lyric poem, with interrelated sections.") T.S. Eliot questions this view in his essay “From Poet to Valéry,” in which he points out that the parts of a long poem

“can form a whole which is more than the sum of its parts; a whole such that the pleasure we derive from the reading of any part is enhanced by our grasp of the whole. It follows also that in a long poem some parts may be deliberately planned to be less ‘poetic’ than others: these passages may show no luster when extracted, but may be intended to solicit, by contrast, the significance of other parts, and to unite them into a whole more significant than any of the parts. A long poem may gain by the widest possible variations of intensity. But Poe wanted a poem to be of the first intensity throughout” (To Criticize the Critic and Other Essays, 34).

To return to the musical comparison, the “less poetic” parts of a long poem may be compared to operatic recitative, less immediately thrilling than the big showpiece arias, but necessary to place and set off those arias. An opera that was all arias would grow exhausting. Strauss’s Salome and, even more, Elektra come close, but both are very short by operatic standards. And yet, a poem hits one less viscerally than music; one is more able to modulate and moderate its impact. Hearing a good live performance of “In Questia Reggia” from Puccini’s Turandot, one’s body vibrates with the force of the voice.

Thus rightly rebuked, I might view my stance as a limitation turned into principle: this is how Eliot views Poe’s position. On the other hand, in the same essay Eliot writes that “the poet’s theories should arise out of his practice rather than his practice out of his theories” (op. cit., 42). So perhaps I am not so far astray after all.

Wallace Stevens captures some of this ambivalence in a letter to Harriet Monroe, though he ultimately comes down in favor of the long poem (and affirms the requirement of variety that Eliot invokes), not for the sense of major accomplishment some take it to represent (he explicitly dismisses that), but for the unexpected or otherwise unavailable possibilities and potentialities it offers: “I have no desire to write a great deal. I know that people judge one by volume. However, having elected to regard poetry as a form of retreat, the judgment of people is neither here nor there. The desire to write a long poem or two is not obsequiousness to the judgment of people. On the contrary, I find that this prolonged attention to a single subject has the same result that prolonged attention to a senora has according to the authorities. All manner of favors drop from it. Only it requires a skill in the varying of the serenade that occasionally makes one feel like a Guatemalan when one particularly wants to feel like an Italian” (Letters of Wallace Stevens 230).

Raising once again the question of how one defines a long poem (how long is long?), The Waste Land, an epic with all the boring bits left out, and the only “long poem” I count among my favorites, is about the longest poem that I can hold in my head more or less at once. And is it “really” a book-length poem? Eliot had to pad it out with notes, fascinating though they are, to fill a printed volumes. Certainly in scope and range it must be accounted major: whatever Eliot’s demurrals, it seeks to respond to the condition of an era.

The long poem is a relative concept, both in terms of sheer size and in terms of type. Is X “long,” being only, say, twenty pages? Is Y a single poem, made up as it is of many distinct units? As one commenter who identifies himself only as Jonathan points out, often the difference between a collection of poems and a long poem is a matter of presentation: a set of lyrics can be strung together into a serial poem no more ambitious or capacious than the standard poetic miscellany. In positive terms, this is the long poem as an accretion of parts also readable in themselves as short lyrics or brief lyric sequences (many serial poems are broken down into sets of smaller serial units).

Despite its moments of luminous intensity, I’d trade The Cantos for Cathay, though there are several individual Cantos I’d keep if I could, among them I, II, IV, XVII, and CXX, with its beautiful confession of failure. This brings up another aspect of the serial poem, its tendency to fissure into discrete lyrics with all the force and presence of free-standing poems. The serial poem is endlessly excerptable. The poems embedded in Williams’s Spring and All, are better known individually than as parts of a rather incoherent whole, and lose nothing when read separately. Zukofsky’s A 11 can satisfy almost endlessly (“River that must turn full after I stop dying/Song, my song, raise grief to music/Light as my love’s thought”). The serial poem frequently raises the question, “Why are these parts linked together? What larger whole do they comprise? Is the whole greater than the sum of its parts?”

It’s not for The Age of Anxiety that I read Auden, though I’m quite fond of The Sea and the Mirror, a series of lyrics (“My Dear One is mine as mirrors are lonely”) and one prose meditation (Caliban’s, of course) strung together to build an arc, one heavily dependent upon Shakespeare’s Tempest. It’s only for some of The Dream Songs, a serial poem if ever there was one, though not, I believe, discussed by Conte, that I read Berryman; “The Ball Poem” is probably my favorite work of his. But I am taken by “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet.” At sixteen pages in his Collected Poems, including notes, does it count as “a long poem”?. And then there are the many poets I love, from Sir Thomas Wyatt and Thomas Campion to Paul Celan and Osip Mandelstam, who never wrote a long poem at all, never even tried. I’ve never wished a Lorine Niedecker poem longer, and not for lack of love.

Thus I conclude with equivocations instead of stands, questions and conundrums rather than answers, preferences and predilections in place of positions.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

A Few Thoughts on Yvor Winters, and Three Poems

Yvor Winters is not much read or even remembered these days, as a critic or as a poet. When he is, he is thought of as a conservative and a reactionary. In his case, these words, usually thrown about with no concern for their actual content or relevance, are both meaningful and accurate. Winters explicitly set out to conserve and preserve, not to say revive, a rationalist, neo-classical discourse in poetry. He equally explicitly reacted against what he saw as the confused, confusing, and dangerous irrationalism of Modernism, an anti-rationalist ideology ultimately deriving from Romanticism (one of the reasons that he dismissed almost the entirety of the literary nineteenth century both British and American) and the eighteenth century cult of sensibility. In his words,

“The Romantic theory of human nature teaches that if man will rely upon his impulses, he will achieve the good life. When this notion is combined, as it frequently is, with a pantheistic philosophy or religion, it commonly teaches that through surrender to impulse man will not only achieve the good life but will achieve a kind of mystical union with the Divinity…. A psychological theory which justifies the freeing of emotions and which holds rational understanding in contempt [can] break the minds of a good many men with sufficient talent to take the theory seriously” (In Defense of Reason).

It is no accident that Winters’s most famous book of criticism is called In Defense of Reason. For him, reason was a moral and not only an intellectual principle. (I might point out, arguing once again against the facile connection between literary conservatism and political conservatism, that Winters was a lifelong member of the ACLU and the NAACP, at a time when such organizations were not popular, and that he once contemplated joining the Communist Party.)

The trap of subjectivism is one with which modern artists have never ceased to grapple, and from which perhaps none of us has successfully escaped. Winters’s solution was a non-subjective absolutism grounded not in theistic or otherwise transcendent certainties (what Derrida called the transcendental signifier) but in a total faith in the power of reason to discover and understand reality, including the reality of emotional experience. In his words, “The absolutist believes in the existence of absolute truths and values…he does not believe that he personally has free access to these absolutes and that his own judgments are final; but he does believe that such absolutes exist and that it is the duty of every man and every society to endeavor as far as may be to approximate them” (“Introduction,” Forms of Discovery: Critical and Historical Essays on the Forms of the Short Poem in English).

Winters was not, in Wallace Stevens’s phrase, a disbeliever in reality. He did not doubt the reality of reality, but he was not naïve about it. “The realm which we perceive with our unaided senses...may be an illusion; but in that illusion we pass our daily lives, including our moral lives; this illusion is quite obviously governed by principles which it is dangerous, often fatal, to violate; this illusion is our reality. I will hereafter refer to it as reality” (op. cit.).

For Winters, reason was not opposed to emotion, but encompassed and accounted for emotion. As he defined it, “The artistic process is one of moral evaluation of human experience, by means of a technique which renders possible an evaluation more precise than any other. The poet tries to understand his experience in rational terms, to state his understanding, and simultaneously to state, by means of the feelings we attach to words, the kind and degree of emotion that should properly be motivated by this understanding.”

This required, for one thing, that the poem be discursive and abstract, not Symbolist-associationist and imagistic, as most poetry since the Moderns has been. (Winters’s stylistic model was the plain style poetry of George Gascoigne and Fulke Greville, whom he considered two of the greatest poets of the English Renaissance.) The morality of poetry consisted in a proper and properly articulated relation of intellect and emotion.

While it would be impossible to agree with most of Winters’s literary judgments (although he esteemed Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens and thought well of William Carlos Williams, he placed Robert Bridges above T.S. Eliot, and T. Sturge Moore above W.B Yeats, and considered Jones Very and Frederick Goddard Tuckerman to be two of the three greatest poets of the nineteenth century, along with Dickinson), it is also impossible not to admire the clarity, rigor, and consistency of his arguments, his willingness and ability (not the same thing) to articulate the premises on which those arguments were based, and his willingness to follow those premises to their logical conclusions, however outrageous. One also must admire the seriousness with which he took literature and its role in the world, and the high standards he set for literature, idiosyncratic as his application of those standards was. For him, literature was no mere pastime or entertainment.

I have no doubt that my work would fail to satisfy his strict strictures, but I have learned a great deal from Winters about the importance of clear thought in my own writing and in reading others’ work, and in speaking and writing about poetry.

I find Winters’s later poetry rather stiff and narrow, not because it is written in traditional forms, but because he too rigidly prescribed what could be done or what could happen within those forms. This is a danger that all systematic poetry faces, whether “experimental” or “traditional.” The later poems obey his critical strictures all too faithfully. Stylistically, there is also too much archaic diction and phrasing. As Robert Hass notes, “What is damaging about the later work is that, in addition to adopting the forms and themes of the English [Renaissance] poets, he adopted their diction. He never solved for himself the problem of getting from image to discourse in the language of his time, and instead borrowed the [language] of another age” (Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry). (This is a problem that Ezra Pound often shared. Many of the numinous moments in The Cantos are couched in the diction of the late nineteenth century English Decadence.) But the earlier poems have a wildness and a strangeness that I find quite compelling. It seems to be exactly this quality against which Winters reacted in his change of style:

“In the long run, however, the free verse and the associational procedure in the use of imagery and in the interrelation of images and other passages proved severely restrictive…. [T]he movement, and consequently the diction, were often violent; form dictated the state of mind and often the subject, and these were not always intelligent. Sometimes the subject justified the state of mind and the form, but not always…. I had pushed this method past the limits of its efficaciousness, and...I found myself unable to write what I wished, and I therefore changed my method” (“Introduction,” The Early Poems of Yvor Winters 1920-1928).

Winters was well aware that free verse was not formless, and indeed developed a system of free verse scansion that works quite well for the material on which he based it, the Imagist poems of W.C. Williams and H.D. in particular, which were highly influential on his own early work. As he writes of his abandonment of free verse for rhyme and meter, “My shift from the methods of these early poems to the methods of my later was not a shift from formlessness to form; it was a shift from certain kinds of form to others.” Winters believed that forms had intrinsic meanings and carried intrinsic values; he wrote of meter as having a moral significance. This is not a view that I share, but it is consistent with his approach to literature as an ethical endeavor.

The three poems I post here present a reflective consciousness in stark confrontation of the otherness of a phenomenal world that has no place for that consciousness. Winters rejects, not just intellectually but first viscerally, any hint of pantheism or a willed unity with nature. The recurring cold is not just a physical but a spiritual state, one from which the speaker finds no escape.

The Rows of Cold Trees

To be my own Messiah to the
burning end. Can one endure the
acrid, steeping darkness of
the brain, which glitters and is
dissipated? Night, the night is
winter, and a dull man bending,
muttering above a freezing pipe;
and I, bent heavily on books; the
mountain, iron in my sleep and
ringing; but the pipe has frozen, haired with
unseen veins, and cold is on the eyelids: who can
remedy this vision?

I have walked upon
the streets between the trees that
grew unleaved from asphalt in a night of
sweating winter in distracted silence.

I have
walked among the tombs—the rushing of the air
in the rich pines above my head is that which
ceaseth not nor stirreth whence it is:
in this the sound of wind is like a flame.

It was the dumb decision of the
madness of my youth that left me with
this cold eye for the fact; that keeps me
quiet, walking toward a
stinging end: I am alone,
and, like the alligator cleaving timeless mud,
among the blessèd who have latin names.

The Streets

The algebra of miracles, that
cold that stills the bone to rigid
shadow set in air; the winter sun
which stirs so slowly that it draws the
dim sky with it.

Then one budges from
his door like a deliberate word.
I met the Christ—we quarreled
over sins in various seasons and the venial
pulchtritudes, and I consigned him to the flame;
his only answer was that one elegiac smile—
he granted nothing; but at last
we settled it like gentlemen and
walked away; fastidiousness had
filled us as delight a shining flower.

And now the trees burst into light, the
streets the color of the flicker of the
steady feet alike deliberate in swiftness
in a world of vigor where I speak to
one beneath a rigid violence of
sun in leaves and pass along—
the wilderness, inveterate and
slow, a vastness one has
never seen, stings to the tongue and
ear. The terror in the taste
and sound of the unseen has
overwhelmed me; I am on the
mythical and smoky soil at last—

But no: it is
another matter here; the ice becomes
embedded beneath shingles; and, between the
seasons, one is stricken with his consciousness
of cold and his stupidity; trapped and morose.
I met God on the streetcar, but I could not
pray to him, and we were both
embarrassed; and to get away I chose
the first finality—black streets like
unlit windows, coffee hour by hour,
and chilling sleep.

“Quod Tegit Omnia”*

Earth darkens and is beaded
with a sweat of bushes and
the bear comes forth;
the mind, stored with
magnificence, proceeds into
the mystery of Time, now
certain of its choice of
passion, but uncertain of the
passion’s end.

Plato temporizes on the nature
of the plumage of the soul the
wind hums in the feathers as
across a cord impeccable in
tautness but of no mind:

the sine-pondere, most
imperturbable of elements,
assumes its own proportions
silently, of its own properties—
an excellence at which one

Adventurer in
living fact, the poet
mounts into the spring,
upon his tongue the taste of
air becoming body: is
embedded in this crystalline
precipitate of Time.

*The title of this poem is a quote from the first few lines of Ovid’s Metamorphoses: “Ante mare et terras et quod tegit omnia caelum/unus erat toto naturae vultus in orbe,/quem dixere Chaos” (Before the sea and lands and the sky which covers all things/there was one face of Nature in the whole world,/which men called Chaos). The italicized phrase translates the poem’s title.

These three poems are taken from The Early Poems of Yvor Winters 1920-1928, published by Alan Swallow in 1966 and now out of print. (I have not figured out how to preserve the indentations of some lines.) I assume that they are included in the Library of America American Poets Project volume of Winters’s Selected Poems, edited by Thom Gunn, which according to Booklist includes a substantial selection of early poems.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Donald Britton, 1951-1994

The poet Donald Britton died of AIDS in 1994, after publishing one slim volume, Italy, in 1981 with poet and novelist Dennis Cooper's Little Caesar Press. That book is long out of print by now; that press, long defunct. Britton's poems are full of vivid yet subtle language and a wistful reticence, a sense of romance all the more powerfully affecting for its muted understatement. While clearly in the line of John Ashbery, who was a mentor of his in New York City, Britton’s poems have a greater intimacy even in their distances, and a verbal glamour the more enchanting for its modesty.

Donald Britton’s poems frequently explore not just what it might mean to be someone else, but what it might mean to be no one, or everyone. While there is often an “I,” that pronoun sometimes serves as no more than a point of view, a place from which the poem sets out. The “you” that flickers in and out of the poems can be the beloved, a friend, a doppelganger, or the reader, or all of them by turns. There is thus, despite the poems’ lack of a defined self, a sense of intimacy, and an emotional openness made more effective by the surface reticence.

Many of Donald Britton’s poems do not have immediately identifiable “topics”: they are not subject-centered in either sense of the word. Britton doesn’t usually write about himself, but rather about states of mind as it moves through the world. The mind which these poems explore is particular and even individual, but it is not personalized in the post-Confessional manner, but abstracted and generalized, as in Ashbery's work, which is the single strongest influence on Britton's poetry. (Ashbery wrote a blurb for Italy, as did the novelist Edmund White.) For Britton, selfhood was something best dispersed or at least shared. This refusal to hold onto the self as a personal possession may be the source of the paradoxical intimacy of these seemingly impersonal poems.

Britton is almost unknown today (he is not listed in Contemporary Authors, nor in any reference works except two for which I have written about him), but I have assembled a selected poems volume of his work titled (after a line in one of his poems) A Kind of Endlessness. This manuscript includes Italy, In the Empire of the Air, his unpublished second collection, and a sheaf of uncollected and unpublished poems. Work dies if it isn’t read (though like Sleeping Beauty or Snow White it can be awakened by a reader’s kiss), and I would like to keep Britton's work alive. I am currently seeking a publisher for this project.

White Space

Beginning where words drop off
In a remnant of music too simple
For speech. I walked back and forth
Across the park as between two worlds,
Neither of them mine, like one
Emerging from one dream into another
Dream, and so on and so forth;
Autumn arriving with heavy breathing
And giant billboard apples
And a kind of built-in auspiciousness
Threshing the air like applause.

The austerity of the setting
And the mind’s horniness might produce
A fresh coordination of the accents,
As though a behind-the-scenes
Explanation of their workings were
Possible if not forthcoming. Horns,
Timbrels, harmonicas, flexatones:
These could contribute to the din
Even now loosening robes of silence
Over Mouseville, pouring into a pause
Endlessly prolonging itself

Out of the time that used to be
Left over for the give-and-take
Of ordinary life, mowing the lawn,
Polishing brass, etc. Now “earth
Blankets herself with the sea
After mating with the sky and the sons
Of earth penetrate the mother in death.”
From this, a museum must rise,
Flawless and inevitable as the snow
That chills the feet of walking statues:
Receive a horrible birth.

Capital Life

Too much like one who bears a resemblance
But is not who he is taken for,
As in dreams the ideal is written in every line.
Or as one roaming hither and thither

Across the surface of the earth seeking
Perfect and autonomous quiet in which
To pronounce those syllables he knows: that
There are endless styles but only one subject

And this is it. Yet blankness still invades
The side of a wall, nailing you hypnotically
To a single course of action
Whose consequences spangle prematurely

Like morning vapors washing their burden
Of light through bamboo shades. Perhaps.
But does the ability to count presuppose
Some grander, intuitive understanding

Of mathematics, or does one just get by
With plain addition and subtraction
And the sang froid of one’s convictions?
Or are these numbers like signs from God,

Clear yet inexplicable, denoting the in-between
States of being and aspiring to the condition
Of a bookmark, dividing the known
From the unknown, neutral with respect to each?

When the time has come to speak, with what
Excuse will we deny ourselves the opportunity,
Choosing silence rather than an inferior
Blessedness, as if we might never grow up,

But extend the prologue so long that it becomes
The tale itself, as so much cautious preparation
Leading to a description of breathlessness,
White porticoes? A kind of endlessness.

In Ballet, You Are Always a “Boy”

In ballet, you are always a “boy,”
Growing up into unmade suits
Whose sleeves will deny
Any knowledge of you. For the day
Is wide, yet fixed, a stream
Eddying into smudge mist,
Seemingly pencilled in
Beneath the sky’s magnesium flash,
Though more real than the grief
You cannot yet have remembered—
Whistled or hummed. Later,
When we have less time, we may know
What we know now in an altered light
That bleeds from below, stairs
Burning above, passing a wintry dusk
In the ordinary way,
And feel reappear in a breeze
Floating about a column
The close, the familiar moisture,
The unheeding fluidity
Of the old days and years.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Brief Notes on Paul Celan, Difficulty, and Meaning

In response to an interesting and provocative comment from Nicholas Manning regarding my post on difficulty in poetry, I don’t presume that meaning is always a good thing (I propose, for one thing, that understanding can often be excruciating painful). I’m not quite sure what it would mean to do so, or conversely to presume that meaning is a bad thing. What would "good" or "bad" mean in such a context? One may have a positive or negative response to a particular meaning one derives from a poem, but that would not apply to meaning itself, which simply is.

Poetry offers many other pleasures and possibilities than meaning. But meaning is one of the possibilities that poetry offers, a not inconsiderable one, and poetry cannot help but offer it. That possibility cannot be evaded or denied, because poems, even the most aleatory or rigorously procedural, are products of human intention, including the intention to write an aleatory or procedural poem from which individual intention will be evacuated. (One could put this as “I intend not to intend.” Or, more precisely but more verbosely, “I intend that my intention will not determine the outcome of the process of writing this poem.”)

A throw of the dice will never abolish chance, as Mallarmé wrote, but it is the human hand that tosses the dice and the human mind and will that decide the meaning of that dice toss’s outcome. As human productions, aesthetic objects are infused with what Kant calls purposiveness, though aesthetic purposiveness is a paradoxical purpose without a purpose, without, that is, any practical or instrumental aim. As Adorno writes in Aesthetic Theory, “In art, the true point of reference continues to be the subject” (63).

To assert that Paul Celan was not interested in meaning or communication is to evade or shrug off the work of actually reading his poems: it is to trivialize those poems, to erase their working at and working through. Celan, who insisted that his poetry was “absolutely not hermetic” (Ganz und gar nicht hermetisch, as he inscribed in Michael Hamburger’s copy of Die Niemandrose), often questioned the possibility of saying, but never its value or its necessity. As Michael Hamburger writes, “If Celan had set out to write hermetic poems, his work would be less difficult than it is, because it would not require us to make the kind of sense of it that we know it can yield” (“Introduction,” The Poems of Paul Celan xxv). Celan did not set out to babble in or play with language. Celan's work is not “experimentation” in the sense which Adorno condemns as “chimerical and specious: on the one hand [the most recent experimental procedures] are tinged with subjectivity; on the other they suppose that art can divest itself of its subjectivity through experimentation, becoming at last what it has always pretended to be, namely a being in itself free of appearance” (Aesthetic Theory 36).

Celan writes in his 1958 speech on receiving the city of Bremen’s literature prize that “In this language [he is referring specifically to the German language, stained and scarred by the enormity of the Holocaust] I have sought…to write poems so as to speak, to orient myself, to find out where I was and where I was meant to go, to sketch out reality for myself.” As he writes later in the same speech: “A poem, as a manifestation of language and thus essentially dialogue, can be a message in a bottle sent out in the—not always greatly hopeful—belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash up on land, on heartland perhaps. Poems in this sense too are underway: they are making toward something.” Despite and by means of their difficulty, Celan’s poems seek, desperately and perhaps hopelessly, communication, contact, connection, even if not in the here and now: as he writes in the poem “Threadsuns” (Fadensonnen), “there are/still songs to sing beyond/humankind.” There is almost always a “you” to whom his poems are directed, to whom his poems try to speak. “Without a You,” the brainless, Youless hordes rush in, with their meaningless words. The message may not reach anyone, and if it does, it may not be apprehended, comprehended. But the possibility, the likelihood even, of failure makes more acute the will to attempt contact, to try to make a connection.

In 1961’s “The Meridian,” his longest and best-known piece of prose, Celan writes that:

“The poem wants to reach an Other, it needs this Other, it needs an over-against. It seeks it out, speaks toward it.

“For the poem making toward an Other, each thing, each human being is a form of this Other.

“The attentiveness a poem devotes to all it encounters, with its sharper sense of detail, outline, structure, color, but also of ‘quiverings’ and ‘intimations’—all this, I think, is not attained by an eye vying (or conniving) with constantly more perfect instruments. Rather, it is a conversation that stays mindful of all our dates.

“A poem—under what conditions!—becomes the poem of someone (ever yet) perceiving, facing phenomena, questioning and addressing those phenomena; it becomes conversation—often despairing conversation.”

Far from disdaining meaning, reference, or communication, Celan is the textbook example of the modern poet who, in Eliot’s description of his activity, “must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning” (“The Metaphysical Poets”). He must wrestle with, deform and be deformed by language (the angel from the struggle with which one rises lamed but blessed, renamed) to make it mean anew, to make it mean again. In particular, Celan attempts to speak the unspeakable, to redeem by reinventing (and rebuking) a language permanently tainted by the incommensurable horror of the Shoah. He seeks to remove “the veil/over road-weary/mouths” (“White noise, bundled”/“Weissgeräusche”), the mouths which can no longer speak and the mouths which, despairing and overwhelmed, will no longer speak.

Even when one doesn’t derive an immediately paraphrasable statement from his poems, one feels the urgency, one is struck by the vivid imagery, immersed in the miniature worldscapes Celan conjures. The poems never seem to be about nothing, though they sometimes brood on the void of Nothing. They are always, in the words of “Wet from the world” (“Die abgewrackten Tabus”), “pursuing/meaning, fleeing/meaning”: fleeing the easy meanings, the always-on-offer lies, seeking a deeper, more hard-won meaning.

Celan was passionately committed to what Nicholas Manning calls “the entire edifice of meaning and reference itself.” He often asked himself “How assemble meaning?” (every poem of his asks that question), but never “Why assemble meaning?” As Michael Hamburger writes in The Truth of Poetry, “His artistic purism is content with nothing less than ‘raids on the inarticulate.’ It would be impertinent to speculate how much of Celan’s later practice is due to extreme experience, how much to the artistic rigor of an unrepentant modernist. What is certain about Celan’s later poems is that they explore the limits of language and the limits of consciousness, groping their way towards a communion that may be religious or mystical, since their starting-point is total solitude and their destination [‘beyond humankind’]” (295).

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Some Thoughts on Difficulty in Poetry

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.