Blast from Past: Being Difficult

This essay appeared previously in Rattle and in my book The Frantic Force.

FranticCoverWith all due respect to those preceding me on this poetry discussion thread, I see great efforts have been expended to assist your poem along what the consensus clearly feels should be a more linear track. There’s nothing like audience-provided cliff notes! I’m reminded of the old lady—approached at a busy intersection by a Boy Scout—who beats him senseless with her handbag. Everyone assumes the old dear will welcome a helping hand. In fact she relishes the thrill of reaching the other side unassisted.

The message to poets is, beware the kindness of strangers. Those who would rescue a poem from ‘incomprehensibility’ may actually be advancing death-by-explication. Poetic logic is its own animal existing outside the bounds of relatable (i.e. conversational) understanding. I’m guilty of offering dubious assistance in some of your prior efforts. But I find myself developing a comfort level with your opacity. To your credit many readers end their excoriations by allowing, sheepishly, that there is ‘something there’ (by itself, a tacit acknowledgement of poetic success), even as they suspect you of being willfully obscure or insensitive to their great sacrifice as readers. For me, at least part of the fascination of your poetry lies in its willful inaccessibility. I’m convinced you’ve constructed more here than a good game of hide-and-seek.

But first, a word for the much-maligned Internet poetry workshop as it offers the possibility for these marvelous rolling commentaries complete with ugly mob scenes that can develop in a flash. Short of the occasional letter to the editor, how can theParis Review compete with this human cluster?

While it’s not in vogue, I level some blame at the audience. Even the most engaging preacher must contend with lazy congregants. For too many, difficulty is a tiresome abomination, a code to be cracked; really, they want their poetry fed to them in bite-sized morsels. Of course they’ll weather the broken flow of the stanza; the better to think themselves Poetry Appreciators (I capitalize this because I feel it is a genus, much like the Lesser Shrew.) There is a certain social value in being a Poetry Appreciator. I believe this is the philistinism Frost was rebuffing when, asked to explain one of his poems, he replied, “Would you have me say it in more or less-adequate words?” This obsequious reader has designs on poetry alright, but for all the wrong reasons (or is it simply just one of the many reasons?). He wants a cogent sound-bite to spice his cocktail chatter with, a haiku-kernel with which to impress his fellow mid-brows. I can hear him muttering, “To hell with art. Chicks dig poetry.” Far be it from me, saddled by my own nefarious agendas, to cast the first stone here.

I’d like to address attention spans—but only briefly. There is too much of the dashed-off vignette in poetry today. Difficulty can’t keep up with the penchant for brevity. I must single out the Internet again as, for all its salutary effects on artistic collaboration and community, it beckons with an immediacy that can be the undoing of careful composition. People want to take full advantage of a forum’s one-poem-a-day quota (a virtual gag order as unnatural to the erstwhile poet as China’s one-child policy is to that country’s fertile peasant class). The technology itself tempts at rushing a poem out there before its time. There is a propitious aspect to poetic composition. In the days of pen and ink, poets would put a poem in a drawer for a few years before returning to it at its appointed time. I’m reminded of the famous Gallo wine slogan “We will sell no wine before its time,” a thirty-second jingle that paradoxically extolled the virtues of unrushed maturation. The natural forbearance of good craft is tempted mightily in the Internet age.

Hurriedness is not a charge I lodge against you as I sense careful composition in your tiny enigmas. The question I would be asking myself if I were you is: “does my poem warrant its difficulty or am I a hopeless obscurantist?” Speaking as a reader, I find myself answering sometimes yes and sometimes no, depending on your poem. No different from any other poet, you approach the dais with a satchel stuffed with successes and failures. Who doesn’t?

Though I may struggle to comprehend it, I have no difficulty with difficult poetry on artistic grounds. In fact, we need more of it if for no other reason than to put our shrinking attention spans through their paces. For one thing, there’s our civic duty to consider. We are approaching an age when rapt attention to anything for a period exceeding sixty seconds will be a crime of the state, perhaps a proviso of Patriot Act III. George Bush’s prisons will soon be stuffed with people guilty of extended reflection. Bush, storekeeper for the New World Order, repeats the operative term with Pavlovian insistency: we must not cut and run. True, he is arguing for patience, but through the language of impulsivity—cut and run—what a fascinating dichotomy in the dark tradition of Orwellian doublespeak.

So we are being systematically curtailed. In this Age of Truncation, poetry should strive for the lonely promontory; stake out the oblique leisurely stroll, the unhurried voice of truth to power before being led away in hand-cuffs. Let the Gestapo goons beat their heads against the wall struggling to put into words the precise nature of the poet’s offense. His crimes should be impossible to explicate on a writ or a summons. To all real poets out there, I say: Your inscrutability is a birthright. Follow your destiny. Take the long way home.

T.S. Eliot, no great lover of the approachable masses, was all over difficult poetry. There is evidence he took great pleasure at the allusion-chasers who scoured The Waste Land searching for the Nile’s true source. But if the cartographer can plot the coordinates, then it’s probably Duluth, not poetry. The Waste Land gives nothing up over bagels and coffee. People rarely fall in love over this behemoth. More often they are rendered speechless. Yet it feels like a poem, filling us with the overwhelming sense we are experiencing something. There is no paragraphed synopsis to render this experience. This is as it should be.

Doomed though it is, debate is irresistible. In T. S. Eliot—An Author for All Seasons: Word of No Speech: Eliot and his Words, Lidia Vianu elicits Eliot’s dim view of understanding as a mainstay of poetic appreciation. “Word of no speech” is a line from Eliot’s Ash-Wednesday, part II:

“The ‘seasoned’ reader,” Eliot begins, “does not bother about understanding when he first reads a poem.” This new image of a reader who enjoys before he has realized what he is reading is in keeping with what was new in the way of writing at the turn of the 20th century. The novelty lies in the poet’s consistently leaving out of the poem something that the reader is used to finding there. A “kind of meaning,” Eliot says, is willfully put aside, and its absence bewilders the reader. Eliot gets rid of that clarity which makes the paraphrase of the poem possible.

In short, a frothing at the mouth with apt rejoinders—i.e. the false-mastery of understanding—belongs to that narrow sphere of English majors, dilettantes and cocktail party show-offs. For the unabashed fancier of art, however, full poetic appreciation is entirely possible in the absence of full understanding. A successful poem—no less a cryptic one—should not be mere launching pad for dollops of explanatory cock-waddle. Like the falling tree in an empty forest, a poem is capable of its own noise, thank you very much. One can go further and suggest that a full understanding—so-called clarity—is the province of prose and not poetry at all. After all, why write a poem in the first place if the desired artistic effect lends itself better to prose? Why not write an essay instead? In his willful exclusion of certain narrative elements critical to a linear understanding, Eliot reserved for himself oodles of fun:There is no decoder ring. But keep looking because I’m busting a gut watching you guys scramble for it.

If I’ve helped you flesh out the trajectory of your own poetic inquiries, while stringing up a few pikers along the way, then this exposition has not been in vain. If you’re a true cynic, you’ll see I may have committed the same fallacy I sought to expose i.e. talking your poem to death. In the meantime, I’ll continue enjoying your poetry to the extremities of my feeble understanding.

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Blast from Past: Being Difficult

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