It’s not too often that disagreements in the poetry world get reported in the greater press, but recently the Guardian wrote about how Geoffrey Hill, Oxford Professor of Poetry, tore down British Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy’s idea that texting is a new form of poetry.
In a lecture entitled “Poetry, Policing, and Public Order,” Hill said, “When the laureate speaks of the tremendous potential for a vital new poetry to be drawn from the practice of texting she is policing her patch, and when I beg her with all due respect to her high office to consider that she might be wrong, I am policing mine.” Hill contends that texting is not a form of poetic compression, just abbreviation.
He then dismisses her poem, “Death of a Teacher,” which reads: “You sat on your desk / swinging your legs, reading a poem by Yeats // to the bored girls, except my heart stumbled and blushed / as it fell in love with the words and I saw the tree / in the scratched old desk under my hands, heard the bird in the oak outside scribble itself on the air." Hill responds, “What Professor Duffy desires to do I believe – and if so it is a most laudable ambition – is to humanise the linguistic semantic detritus of our particular phase of oligarchical consumerism. And for the common good she is willing to
have quoted by the Guardian interviewer several lines from a poem by herself that could easily be mistaken for a first effort by one of the young people she wishes to encourage.”
Hill has previously written about his belief that “difficult” poetry is actually the most democratic since it assumes the reader intelligent enough to grasp its meaning, but this seems a little stinging. He does go on in his lecture to praise another poem by Duffy, but the whole poetry dust-up made me start looking into the idea of “difficult” poetry and what people mean when they say a poem is “difficult.”
My former high school students, of course, would say almost any poem is difficult, and they have a point. Poetry, even the most outwardly simple of poems, poses difficulties, since there are elements — line breaks, sound effects, visual effects — that cannot be captured by its paraphrase. This makes high school students and probably a good deal of the population nervous, perhaps because the poem is demanding that its reader give up control over what is making meaning. Many readers unfamiliar with poetry may not trust that the writer will take care to give enough sign posts directing how the poem should be read.
As I delved into online resources on difficulty in poetry, I found many writers who can do it greater justice than I can, so I now defer to some experts on the topic.
In an article from the Writer’s Chronicle, Summer 2008 (posted in this link by John Gallaher), Reginald Shepherd outlines ways poems can be considered difficult and makes a good case for not dumbing down anything about a “difficult” poem. Shepherd points out that difficulty in poems isn’t just because a poem makes obscure references. He explains that even some poems that are written in clear sentences with plain language can present difficulties of interpretation or “mode,” in which the poem doesn’t appear to be a poem in the form a reader would ordinarily expect. It might be framed as a grocery list or a note pinned to the refrigerator.
Shepherd also argues that poems should be experienced, not simply understood. He says, “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 painting by Willem de Kooning 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 mere road markers or sign posts to something else, it’s no wonder that they
don’t want to read them. I would rather go to a place myself than look at a sign pointing out the direction to the place.” Shepherd ends with a quotation from the poet Howard Nemerov, who argues that if poetry is to be declared dead it isn’t because it has become too complex but because poets feel the need to dumb down their work for an audience of “low tastes and lazy minds,” that expects easy answers from art.
An article from Slate from 2007 by Robert Pinsky in honor of National Poetry Month defends the charge that poetry has become too difficult. Pinsky claims people are often fascinated with difficult tasks:
"Difficulty, after all, is one of life's essential pleasures: music, athletics, dance thrill us partly because they engage great difficulties. Epics and tragedies, no less than action movies and mysteries, portray an individual's struggle with some great
difficulty. In his difficult and entertaining work Ulysses, James Joyce recounts the challenges engaged by the persistent, thwarted hero Leopold and the ambitious, narcissistic hero Stephen. Golf and video games, for certain demographic categories, provide inexhaustible, readily available sources of difficulty."
Pinsky then presents poems that explore the nature of engaging in difficult activities — Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel, Yeats complaining about producing his plays — and poems by Kenneth Koch and Sylvia Plath that present ambiguities and contradictions for the reader.
Pinksy uses his selection of poems to illustrate his point about the value of difficulty for his readers, but the poet Steve Kowit takes his point about difficult poetry one step further by writing his essay as a poem. He writes that at first he was taken with the mystery of difficult poetry. He begins:
"When I was about fifteen I fell in love with Hart Crane. The poems in White Buildings, The Bridge and Key West shimmered with the most fragile and delicate poignance. It was the very music of the soul's anguish.
Kowit goes on to describe how through reading Ginsberg and others he realized the poetry of “pure music” did not satisfy him completely. Why read words instead of turning on the radio if there was no message in the words? Kowit’s poem/essay dives into the history of modernism, post-war poetry, and contemporary spats between editors and poets about the nature of language, signification, and the role of poetry. On the way he dismisses poets like Jorie Graham and Reginald Shepherd who call for a poetry of “indeterminacy.” Kowit writes:
"It seems to me that the widespread critical belief that poetry needn't communicate has had disastrous consequences for the art, and that a shockingly large part of the poetry of our own time is, with its blanketing fog of obscurity, altogether
The difference between writers and critics who don’t find difficult poetry all that difficult, writers who scratch their heads and wonder why readers don’t read more poetry, and the general reading public (itself a subset of the general American population!) may have a lot to do with the kind of poetry that holds obscurity for obscurity’s sake in high regard.
After reading these essays and essay/poems (chopped prose?) in which academics sling their theories back and forth at each other hoping to knock one another off his or her perch, or as Geoffrey Hill says, “policing his patch,” I wonder if this isn’t the right debate to have over the nature of poetry. We could all get blue in the face arguing over what is the best kind of poetry to write, but ultimately only time can tell which poems will matter. After all, most everyone thought Whitman was crap, Blake was crazy, Keats was a cockney, and Ginsberg a drugged-out degenerate. So maybe we should appreciate the proliferation of poetry that is occurring of all types from Slam to nouveau Haiku (OK, I just made up the genre) and spend editorial space thinking of new ways to get what’s happening in poetry which is, if nothing else, a reflection of the language of our times, out to a wider readership so they can grapple, giggle, beat their heads, and
get lost in the words.
Dan Schneider is a former high school English teacher who lives and writes outside of the Rochester, N.Y., area.
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