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The Mystique of the Difficult Poem (Round 2)


by Steve Kowit

Speechless, Summer 2006

More reasoned and modest than Jorie Graham's, and far less silly and dismissable than Bernsteinís, is the defense of difficult poetry recently set forth by by Donald Justice, who argues that certain kinds of obscurity in poetry are "not altogether destructive" ["Benign Obscurity," from Oblivion: On Writers and Writing, Story Line Press, 1998]. The least persuasive of his arguments is the curious notion that a poem without "hidden meanings" is likely to be trivial or frivolous, an assertion that he makes in passing and does not bother either to explain or defend. Nor does it seem likely, from anything his essay suggests, that he would be able to. Though he distinguishes a "benign" sort of obscurity from that form of obscurity for which he has less indulgence―what he characterizes as the "blanketing fog that can creep over everything"―he seems to be saving his approval, for the most part, for a poetry of magnificent music which makes the obscurity of its text seem not only palatable but perfectly appropriate, a part of the poem's necessary texture―a quality without which the poem would be something less imposing and less memorable than it is. Justice, who makes such suggestions in the most provisional and tempered language, argues that "one may be led on, and cheerfully enough at times, by precisely one's failure to grasp what is being said. And there is the excitement, meanwhile, of being in beyond one's depth." Though it is possible, I suppose, that an opaque passage or phrase in an otherwise clear text can be intriguing, and can add a certain color and excitement to a poem, I am not fully convinced of it. Though the joy of pure poetic music and language certainly has its rewards, they seem ultimately smaller rewards than such poetry would have were the same quality of language tethered to intelligible subject matter and perception. Imagine Hart Crane, for example, writing a poetry of the same verbal richness and intensity, but one that was filled with brilliant and fully lucid descriptions, narratives, characterizations, and insights. I hardly imagine it would be a lesser poetry.

Justice makes an even more interesting argument about the success of many of the more obscure poems of Hopkins, Hart Crane and Dylan Thomas when he suggests that "the singular power of such poems seems to penetrate the emotional system directly, without ever having to pass through the understanding." But this, it seems to me, is to make too much of the fact that one can catch the flavor, subject, attitude and emotional tone of a passage with only a few verbal cues. That certainly seems true. But with the exception of a few heady examples―poets of glorious musical skill such as the ones Justice cites―it is hard for me to think of many poets who can carry the day on their musicianship alone. It is to suggest, I think, that the content of poems really is an unimportant aspect of them. Perhaps that is true for Justice. I know it is not true for me.

His third argument is that the obscurity of a narrative poem such as E. A. Robinson's "Eros Turanos" might, perhaps, be "expressive of the very understanding the poem is intended to carry." By this he seems to mean that the poem's narrative unclarity might be rooted in―that is, it might be a consciously formal or strategic correlative for―the moral complexity of the situation it purports to describe. I confess at once that the suggestion seems farfetched, and the very fact that Justice himself is so uneasy about postulating it leads me to believe he's about as unconvinced by it as I am. I suspect, rather, that he so much admires both those parts of the Robinson poem that are clear and the prosodic and writerly skill of the whole that he has allowed his good common sense to be swayed by a number of other critics who admire the poem, in part, for the very reason that it doesn't entirely make sense. To my taste, Robinson's best poems are, however subtle in their narrative strategies, nonetheless perfectly clear. When he fails, which is often enough, it is because of an inability or unwillingness to tell his story with sufficient clarity. "Eros Turanos" has fine passages and, here and there, admirable moments of complex psychological portraiture but, in the end, the poem collapses beneath the weight of its unclarity. Although Justice wonders if those critics might be right that its very unclarity is a virtue, he seems uneasy about the proposition and not entirely convinced, and his essay ends with the most modest of claims. For certain poems or certain kinds of poems a degree of obscurity, he posits, is simply unavoidable, and with such poems "the obscurity is no handicap, perhaps even has its uses―can we claim this much?"

It seems to me that the widespread critical belief that poetry needn't communicate has had disastrous consequences for the art, and that a shockingly large part of the poetry of our own time is, with its blanketing fog of obscurity, altogether unreadable. In the end, neither avant-garde Language Poets like Charles Bernstein nor well-meaning postmodernists like Jorie Graham are to be blamed for this mess. Children of the age of theory, the postmodernists argue that communication isn't really possible anyhow and that no reading of a "text" can be "privileged" over any other: that is to say, language itself is indeterminate. But this idea is by no means the radical break with the modernist tradition that it might at first seem. It is, rather, its natural extension: postmodernist indeterminacy" being the logical extension―or at least the reductio ad absurdum―of the defining modernist penchant for difficulty. It wasn't Charles Bernstein, after all, but T. S. Eliot who suggested that "meaning" was a questionable expedient that we could well do without, nothing more than meat thrown to the watchdogs while the burglar robbed the house. It need be said at once that Eliot never practiced quite so radical a poetics as his remark suggests. At its best, which is a good deal of the time, his poetry, however nonlinear, is brilliantly coherent. Though the various settings of a poem like "Prufrock" continue to shift disconcertingly, in Eliot's controlled hands the collaged, unanchorable narrative, a fusion of interior anxieties and exterior perceptions and assertions, remains, however complex and novel, brilliantly intelligible.

By the Forties, the fashion for the difficult had become so pervasive that the subject of incoherence and indeterminacy rarely arose as a significant issue in critical discourse. And although a good number of our best poets are no longer engaged in that sort of enterprise, and take pleasure in writing a poetry that, however wild, subtle and surprising, is perfectly lucid, indecipherability is still much in vogue, as one can prove by glancing through just about any contemporary anthology or poetry journal. This opacity, which has effectively killed off any possibility of a large American readership, has been a reigning fashion in conventional poetry for almost a century now, and while it is still common to hear the virtues of difficulty extolled in the critical literature, it is exceedingly rare to find even the most tepid dissent. If there are serious poets and critics who are appalled by this facet of the contemporary aesthetic, they have been politic enough to keep their mouths shut. But its absence from serious consideration is probably less a matter of conscious decision than the fact that the ideology is so pervasive it has become an all but unchallengeable assumption, as if difficulty were a necessary function of what poetry is, a fundamental condition of the art itself. Which is why, I suppose, the issue has not been a significant feature of any of the poetry pie fights of the past few decades. Fought out at the edges of the Great American Kulturkampf―that low-intensity protracted warfare between an ascendant conservatism and a liberalism that dare not speak its name―these periodic skirmishes, often emblematic of the larger national conflict being waged over America's soul, reveal a good deal about who we are and what we believe.

A few years back, for example, Joseph Epstein, in a bit of conservative nostalgia, provoked an amusing squabble by suggesting that our verse had notably degenerated since the era of Eliot and Stevens. Another battle raged over the "neo-formalists," who wish to return us to the prosodic rigors of the past. At the same time, there was the marginally memorable flap over the deconstructionist aesthetic of the Language Poets who were either registering a monumental epistemic breakthrough, as they themselves loudly proclaimed, or were merely "long on theory," as Allen Ginsberg once pointedly suggested. Apparently, many mainstream poets who smirk at the relentless incoherence of those avant-gardists delude themselves with the comforting notion that their own brand of highly complex, disjunctive, and imagistically dense poetry is, if one only reads sensitively enough, perfectly intelligible.

In the latest poetry brouhaha, Harold Bloom, a tireless advocate of difficulty in poetry, has registered his pique at the new multicultural barbarism that is undermining the Western intellectual tradition. With the universities' urgency to teach an inclusive, gender-conscious, multi-ethnic curriculum, it is Bloom's fear that the "major" poets and novelists of the English tradition will be abandoned by the academy in favor of undistinguished figures whose only virtue is that they are representatives of various "under-represented" minorities. At the same time, so Bloom would have it, the critical establishment has been seriously undermined by post-structuralist, and decidedly anti-canonical notions of literature, language and culture. American poetry is self-destructing, he insists, under the influence of "the French diseases, the mock-feminists, the commissars, the gender-and-power freaks, the hosts of new historicists and old materialists." In his essay, which appears as his introduction to The Best of the Best American Poetry: 1988-1997 (a later volume of the same series in which Jorie Graham's essay appeared), Bloom is indignant at the dumbing-down of the university curriculum as indicated by the widespread sanctioning of cultural studies departments: that is to say, all those Black, Hispanic, Feminist and Queer arrivistes who have managed to elbow their way into seats at the academic banquet. More particularly, he is in a dither over the likes of Lady Mary Chudleigh and Anne Killigrew having insinuated themselves into those hernia-inducing tomes that undergraduates are forced to lug from building to building on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This reprehensible attack on the Western canon, he assures us, is a byproduct of "cultural guilt" and successful hectoring by "The School of Resentment." Apparently, in tilting toward affirmative action set-asides―toward homosexuals, women, undeserving poets of color, the politically correct and hyphenated-Americans―these offending anthologies have been insidiously undermining the foundations of our civilization. Not surprisingly, in the many rejoinders that have been made to his broadside--most notably in the Spring '98 Boston Review, which was devoted to such responses―he is roundly attacked by a number of poets for his cultural conservatism and, by a few postmodernists, for his aesthetic conservatism. Carol Muske, in the brightest and most eloquent of those published responses, defends the revisionist Heath and the revised Norton by recalling, during her college days,

paging through anthologies of poetry, in vain, looking for the names of women. Surely there was some other female writer besides Dickinson or Sappho? Maybe the Countess of Pembroke? How thrilling it was, back then, to find a female name, even if it was attached to a relatively uninspiring poem. It was thrilling just to see that women wrote, were published. So room had to be made for these other voices―beyond the best. And beyond The Best of.

Several of the other Boston Review respondents take Bloom to task for one or another of his blind spots. But it seems to me both significant and lamentable that not a single essayist responding to Bloom took issue with what I take to be his most pernicious assertion: "Authentic American poetry," he declares in that bilious introduction,

is necessarily difficult. . . our situation needs aesthetic and cognitive difficulty. . . it is our elitist art, though that elite has nothing to do with social class, gender, erotic preference, ethnic strain, race, or sect. "We live in the mind," Stevens said.

This insistence on poetic opacity is questioned only by those postmodernists among the Boston Review respondents who insist that poetry ought to be more incomprehensible yet. Apparently what Bloom finds objectionable among the deconstructionist critics, those pernicious purveyors of "the French diseases," is their subversively anti-hierarchic beliefs about literature and culture, and has nothing to do with the macaronic density of their language. This is hardly surprising: the love of jargon-saturated, dizzyingly complex rhetorical footwork which those infected with the "French diseases" find so attractive is not, after all, so different from the kind of academic flapdoodle upon which his own critical reputation rests.

As for his insistence on the very necessity for difficulty, Bloom is in the absurd position of having to claim that even Walt Whitman was, "above all else, a very difficult poet," while asserting with a straight face that Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, and John Ashbery are Whitman's true heirs. In order to spin Whitman in the image of poets so utterly inimical to his spirit, he simply stands Whitman on his head. On an earlier occasion he had declared that Whitman's statement of ecstatic longing, "To touch my person to some one else's is about as much as I can stand," was the poet's confession that he found human touch repulsive. An unreconstructed Freudian, Bloom is capable of making any statement mean what he wishes it to mean. Freud's main technique for this kind of convenient fast shuffle was "reaction formation," a putative psychic mechanism that transformed things into their opposites. When a patient said or dreamed something that confounded the analyst's interpretation, it was simply a reaction formation: that is, the patient's meaning was the very opposite of what it seemed to be. Thus, according to Bloom, "Whitman's poetry generally does the opposite of what he proclaims its work to be: it is reclusive, evasive, hermetic, nuanced, and more onanistic even than homoerotic." This, of course, is embarrassing nonsense. As for living in one's head, a la Wallace Stevens, that is precisely what Whitman is at pains to warn us against. When he tells us that he is "Both in and out of the game, and watching and wondering at it"―a line Bloom quotes in his essay―it is not, as that critic assumes, to register the kind of self-conscious alienation from life that his favorite modernists display. Rather, the poet is declaring that he does not live in thrall to the common delusions of the ego, but has awakened into the unmediated world: that he is not an intellect filled with attitudes and opinions, but an empty, observing awareness. As for "difficulty," Whitman proclaims: "I will not have in my writing any elegance or effect or originality to hang in the way between me and the rest like curtains. I will have nothing hang in the way, not the richest curtains." Against the corollary modernist principle that poems are made of words, not ideas, he memorably declares: "The words of my poem nothing, the drift of it everything." But the case of Whitman also offers to us the cautionary example of the dangers of canonical literary judgments: Our "best" poets and critics, blind to his genius, dismissed him as a vulgar eccentric, until the zeitgeist shifted in mid-century and everyone suddenly noticed his bearded figure towering above our literature.

However, the most curious and provocative portion of Bloom's essay was not his attack on multiculturalism or his absurd revision of Whitman, but his attack on Adrienne Rich, whose Best American Poetry of 1996 was the only one of David Lehman's annual series from which Bloom did not draw work for his Best of the Best. Rich's anthology is emblematic for Bloom of the wretched state of literary affairs, exemplifying everything that's wrong with the new affirmative action poetics. It

is of a badness not to be believed, because it follows the criteria now operative: what matters most are the race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnic origin, and political purpose of the would-be poet. I ardently wish I were being hyperbolical, but in fact I am exercising restraint....Bursting with sincerity, the 1996 volume is a Stuffed Owl of bad verse, and of much badness that is neither verse nor prose.

With this judgment at least three of the Boston Review respondents unequivocally concur: one, J. D. McClatchy, is an enthusiastic advocate of difficult poetry. The other two, Marjorie Perloff and Reginald Shepherd, disdain meaning altogether. Perloff finds many of Rich's choices "relentlessly PC...maudlin, self-righteous, boring, and ultimately just plain incompetent." A tireless champion of the poetry of impenetrability, it is hardly surprising that she would find Rich's penchant for the accessible, emotional and socially engaged antithetical to her tastes. For Perloff, any poetry that doesn't exhibit an uncompromising indeterminacy smacks of the platitudinous and sentimental: soap opera masquerading as art. Not surprisingly, Perloff faults Bloom, too, for his reactionary poetic tastes, his inability to appreciate the "genuinely radical poetry now being written," by which she means the unabashedly incomprehensible writers whom she has been championing for the past many years.


Speechless Spring 2007
Copyright © 2007 Published by
Tebot Bach