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The Mystique of the Difficult Poem

(Part 1 of 3)

By Steve Kowit

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Steve Kowit was born in Brooklyn and schooled on Manhattan's Lower East Side. In the late Sixties, he fled to Mexico to avoid participating in the immolation of Southeast Asia, eventually settling in San Diego where he founded that city's first animal rights organization.  He is the author of several collections of poetry, including The Dumbbell Nebula from Heyday Books/The California Poetry series, and the popular book on craft and sources of inspiration, In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poet's Portable Workshop. He has also translated Pablo Neruda's Incitement to Nixonicide and Praise for the Chilean Revolution and edited The Maverick Poets anthology. He teaches at Southwestern College in Chula Vista. 

This essay first appeared in Poetry International, edited by Fred Moramarco and published by California State University San Diego, Department of English and Comparative Literature. The essay is serialized here in the first of three parts.

For those who would like to defend the difficult poem, we're open to alternative viewpoints—via letter or counter-essay.

The Mystique of the Difficult Poem (Part 1)

In which our hero falls in and out of love, then entertains many pleasant and stimulating ideas  regarding Jorie Graham, Robinson Jeffers and questions of "difficulty" and clarity in contemporary Poetry. — Ed.

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. As for Crane's suicide, that was icing on the cake: it made the work even more tragic, more unbearably gorgeous. The fact that I had only the vaguest idea what he was talking about, and sometimes not even that, bothered me hardly at all until I was in my twenties and the pure music of Crane began to seem less enticing than the work of poets who, in addition to their engaging linguistic skills, actually seemed to have something coherent to say. Although Crane's pervasive obscurity was more tolerable than that of poets who were less exquisite musicians, l had by then read enough incomprehensible poetry to know that I wanted something more. I wanted marvelous music to be sure, stunning figures, an imaginative linguistic playfulness that was everywhere inspired and surprising, but I also wanted poems that spoke to me with thrilling precision and insight. The "ambiguities" that the New Critics imagined to be at the center of poetic craft seemed almost always to weaken rather than strengthen my experience of the poem. Though my first reading of a poem is likely to take pleasure in the language, the tonalities, the music and linguistic sparkle, the intelligence and taste behind the phrasing, nonetheless, I find myself unlikely to finish reading a poem if it becomes apparent that the poet has no intention of communicating much of anything beyond all that language, all that music. Far be it from me to invade his privacy. If I want pure music I can listen to Palestrina and Sam Cooke.

At about the same time as my uneasiness over modernist incoherence was growing, Allen Ginsberg, himself still a young man, was beginning to publish a poetry that was more fierce, emotionally charged, and appealingly human than anything I had read from his more staid and conventional contemporaries. And not the least of his virtues was that he was perfectly coherent. The stuff wasn't filled with footnotable literary allusions and hopelessly gnarled syntax and untrackable metaphoric acrobatics. "Howl" opened up a territory, at least for me, that the modernists had spent the first half of the century trying to close off. Suddenly the doors of possibility had been flung wide open. There was plenty of freedom, plenty of room to move around and to do what the avant garde had never dared to do―write poems in coherent English.

And then, when I was twenty-seven, I moved to the West Coast and picked up Robinson Jeffers, and was stunned anew. He was as wonderful a musician as any of the modernists I'd read, easily as fine and conscious a craftsman, but his poems, like Ginsberg's, were perfectly understandable. Jeffers' music was certainly not as ecstatic or intoxicating as Hart Crane’s, but then again he never seemed ornamental, precious, histrionic; he was never without flesh and substance. Jeffers not only had something of moment to say but he managed to say it, as had Ginsberg, without resorting to a hundred subterfuges, misdirections, ambiguities. Moreover, Jeffers' vision was larger by far than that of his contemporaries, those high modernists who had dominated American poetry during the first half of the twentieth century.

Of course, in the background of my life, there had always been Whitman: larger and wiser than any poet had been before or has been since, and everywhere luminously clear. But somehow, perhaps because he was not of my century, or because he was a poet of such singular genius, his ability to speak with the utmost clarity about even the most subtle and all but inexpressible matters hadn't been able to serve me as a model. Under the influence of Whitman, Ginsberg and Jeffers, the canonical American poets, with their inordinate love of difficulty, began to lose their luster. I became profoundly suspicious of the whole modernist enterprise. As a fledgling poet I had written enough high-flown gibberish myself to know its seductions. Though I would continue to read occasional poems and passages in poems that were thrilling, however inexplicable, the business of writing incoherent poetry seemed tiresome, and I wanted nothing to do with it.

This, I fully realize, is a minority opinion, at least among poets, academics and critics. Though I imagine the vast bulk of the reading public feels much as I do―hence their indifference to contemporary poetry―I suspect many in the trade will find such an attitude appalling, for impenetrability is still widely admired. A recent review in The New York Review of Books claims, for example, as though it were a sign of the poet's talent and distinction, that Eugenio Montale "will lead commentators into all kinds of difficulty when it comes to establishing the content of many of the poems." The reviewer, discussing at length a particular twelve-line poem from Montale's early collection, Cuttlefish, happily admits that he has almost no idea what it means, though it is one of Montale's "simplest" lyrics. "What, overall, is the poem about?" he asks. "Even with this simplest of lyrics, the essential nub winds off into a cloud of possibilities." But this unclarity at the "essential nub" of so many Montale poems is, so the reviewer assures us, among the poet's chiefmost virtues. The genius of Montale's work is achieved through "a prodigious density encouraging ever more complex levels of consciousness, and evoking the finest shadings of emotion colored by every variety of thought." The reviewer, Tim Parks, is a knowledgeable reader of Montale's poetry, and his praise of poetic incomprehensibility is not at all unusual among those who read poetry seriously. Nonetheless, if you look at his assertion closely, you will see that it is little more than a sophisticated version of the bemused college freshman's belief that a poem isn't really supposed to mean anything at all, so that the reader can have the pleasure of making it mean whatever he wants it to mean. When Tim Parks reminds us that "poetry in this century has become more cryptic, more private, more untranslatable," there is, in his voice, no hint of reproach. This assertion, that "difficulty" is one of modernism's defining virtues, has been so frequently injected into the body of contemporary aesthetics that it has become an unchallenged and toxic part of its bloodstream.

In The Best American Poetry of 1990, Jorie Graham makes perhaps the most eloquent, lengthy and detailed recent defense of difficult and indeterminate verse. In one typical passage she writes:

When we experience a loosening of setting or point of view, and a breakdown of syntax's dependence on closure, we witness an opening up of the present-tense terrain of the poem, a privileging of delay and digression over progress.

 This opening up of the present moment as a terrain outside time―this foregrounding of the field of the "act of the poem"―can be explained in many ways. We might consider the way in which the idea of perfection in art seems to be called into question by many of our poets. On the one hand, some might argue today, the notion of perfection serves ultimately to make an object not so much ideal as available to a marketplace, available for ownership--something to be acquired by the act of understanding.

In this passage, Graham is recommending not just the virtues of being "indefinite" about the poem's setting, but the value of employing a syntax that guarantees that the reader will be confused about anything the poet might be trying to say. The tactical advantage of this seems to be that if readers have no idea what you're talking about and are unable to pay attention to either the narrative or the ideas (because, in fact, the poet has refused to articulate any), they will be forced to attend to "the field of the 'act of the poem'," that is, I take it, to the manner of its saying: the phrasing, juxtapositions, music, diction, imagery and such. This, I assume, is what she means by "an opening up of the present-tense terrain of the poem," and what she means by suggesting, in a phrase that seems somewhat inflated for its occasion, that such poems are "outside time." Apparently, if there is no narrative, no temporal instance that is being described, the poem is, therefore, "timeless." Finally, she seems to suggest that the idea of a "perfect" poem, or the attempt to write such a poem, produces something that, by virtue of being accessible to the general reader, becomes no more than a contemptible "commodity." This notion betrays a patrician haughtiness that one imagines Graham would be loathe to confess more directly. Elsewhere in that essay, she writes:

The genius of syntax consists in its permitting paradoxical, "unsolvable" ideas to be explored, not merely nailed down, stored, and owned; in its permitting the soul-forging pleasures of thinking to prevail over the acquisition of information called knowing.

For Graham, thinking and exploration seem to mean no more than being vague and ambiguous enough so that neither the author nor the reader can recognize, let alone explore, any genuine idea or perception. This, of course, is not what we tend to mean by genuine exploration of ideas but is only the facade of such exploration, and indeed what is being recommended in her essay seems nothing but a poetry of facades. Her introductory essay, made up almost entirely of this sort of piffling, goes on for some fourteen pages, all to glorify the lofty desire of the poet to resist making sense. This is the open-ended, exploratory, multivoiced, indeterminate, opaquely textured, disjunctive and defamiliarizing closure-free world of postmodern poetics. And if it promotes a poetry that is "free of any user," it augurs as well a poetry that is likely to be free of many readers.

While Graham wants others to share her heady excitement over such verse, it is apt to prove a difficult sell, though her own experience of such poetry, she insists, is nothing short of redemptive. Here, in her somewhat overheated prose, she captures (or invents, depending on your view of her credibility) the rapturous, revival-meeting spirit that overcomes her when she listens to the glossolalia of incomprehensible verse:

[...]the motion of the poem as a whole resisted my impulse to resolve it into "sense" of a rational kind. Listening to the poem, I could feel my irritable reaching after fact, my desire for resolution, graspable meaning, ownership....It resisted. It compelled me to let go. The frontal, grasping motion frustrated, my intuition was forced awake. I felt myself having to "listen" with other parts of my sensibility, felt my mind being forced back down into the soil of my senses. And I saw it was the resistance of the poem--its occlusion, or difficulty―that was healing me, forcing me to privilege my heart, my intuition―parts of my sensibility infrequently called upon in my everyday experience in the marketplace of things and ideas [...].

Mercifully less decorative is Graham's discussion, near the beginning of her essay, wherein she admits―though only, I would guess, as a rhetorical ploy―that she feels some uneasiness about the enterprise of writing poetry that resists being understood. Here, it is interesting to note, the misty cerebral romance of the rest of her essay is nowhere to be found. Here she writes in cogent English―perhaps because she has something unequivocal to say:


Yet surely the most frequent accusation leveled against contemporary poetry is its difficulty or inaccessibility. It is accused of speaking only to itself, of becoming an irrelevant and elitist art form with a dwindling audience.... For how can we hear that "no one reads it," or that "no one understands it," without experiencing a failure of confidence.... We start believing that it is essentially anachronistic. We become anecdotal. We want to entertain. We believe we should "communicate."

In the lexicon of modernism, "anecdotal," "entertain," and "communicate" are indeed beneath contempt. They stand with "self-expression" and “sincerity" as the sort of sorry business in which only the novice and the inept engage. But if poets have far more noble goals, as Graham assures us they have, than to concern themselves with so tawdry a matter as making their poems intelligible, whatever these goals might be they seem too ephemeral and rarified to attract the common reader, who is likely to find behind the claim little of substance and nothing of interest.

Jorie Graham, one of our most praised contemporary poets, represents the aesthetic thinking of those who, like Parks, find difficulty a decided virtue. Indeed, she envisions a poetry that is not merely difficult but indeterminate, that is to say, incomprehensible. And if Graham's rationale seems a bit murky, what is one to say of something like this, the opening half-sentence of an essay by Charles Bernstein, a leading "theoretician" among the American postmodernists:

Not "death" of the referent―rather a recharged use of the multivalent referential vectors that any word has, how words in combination tone and modify the associations made for each of them, how 'reference' then is not a one-on-one relation to an 'object' but a perceptual dimension that closes in to pinpoint, nail down (this word), sputters omnitropically (the in in the which of who where what wells), refuses the build up of image track/projection while, pointillistically, fixes a reference at each turn [...].

More reasoned and modest than Jorie Graham's, and far less silly and dismissable than Bernstein’s, is the defense of difficult poetry recently set forth by by Donald Justice [...].



Speechless Spring 2007
Copyright © 2007 Published by
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