Pinsky’s praise of difficult poetry last week is commendable in its way. He serves up a hodge podge of interesting verse that requires something back from the reader — more than what most celebrations of NaPoMo attempted. That said, he doesn’t really go much further than that toward making the argument for difficulty. He seems to define difficulty in opposition to poems that are genial and soothing, with easy meaning. This is a particular mode of poetry, suitable to some tasks, but far from an over-arching principle. It is a bit like praising the use of many of colors in painting, rather than just sticking, say, to purple. Some people like purple, some like genial — but we all know that’s hardly the extent of the art.
There are two kinds of difficulty, as I see it. On the one hand, we have difficulty as a way of saying we require the reader to bring some effort or energy to the poem. Here, the payoff for such effort must be equal or greater to the effort expended. This is the healthy, respectful kind of disregard for one’s reader also known as artistic integrity.
But there is another, more detrimental mode of difficulty where the writer is building walls. Such poems can actually still matter, if the poetic compensation (as in sound, rhythm, and the shimmer of inferred meaning, independent of literal meaning) is enough to carry readers through a sufficiently complex and enjoyable experience independent of the author’s intent. But the practice of enigmatology for its own sake does more harm to the art, frankly, than the sing-song banal. Only good poets get alienated by bad poetry. Everyone gets alienated by insular arrogance. (Just not everyone is brave enough to admit it.)
Claudia Emerson does a bang-up job of putting all the “accessibility versus difficulty” squabbling to rest when she points out that it is really not so much difficulty as complexity that we should strive for in a poem. This is much more than just a semantic distinction. It is a guidepost away from the dark side of difficulty, toward the territory of the real (which we all know is stranger than fiction, especially the interior “real”).
The poems and interviews in the latest Shenandoah eviscerated me (in a good way, as opposed to the cockney slang “gutted” or some form of seppuku). The following portion of an interview with Claudia Emerson particularly resonated with me:
Sarah Kennedy: Two terms, “accessibility” and “difficulty,” crop up in discussions of current poetry so frequently that it sometimes seems that a poet can only attain one of these. What are your thoughts about the issue of accessibility and the potential readerships of contemporary poetry?
Claudia Emerson: One of my first loves in poetry was Robert Frost, and I was inspired early on by his deceptive simplicity. Instead of “accessibility,” we might also aspire for “clarity” and then strive for, instead of “difficulty,” “complexity.” If we care about readers and all (and not just those in the academy), we have to give them a way into the poem. And I think we need to remember that clarity does not preclude depth. If our language is precise, our imagery clear, our metaphors original and well crafted, then we can indeed create poems that will reward a listener on being heard for the first time and also replay the astute close reader. I am willing to work pretty hard at [here I assume she means reading, rather than writing] a poem — but only one that eventually repays my rigorous attention to it.
Poetry can be particularly vulnerable to the kind of experiment that deliberately sacrifices meaning, for one example, to explore language as unstable and untrustworthy; the poetry then proves that — but of course such poetry’s continued existence needs its accompanying criticism (or dissertation or panel presentation) — and I would suggest that the criticism (or the “explanation”) becomes too essential a part of the poetry since without it, certain kinds of poems are bells without tongues.
Thanks to the Poetry Daily newsletter for first pointing out a portion of this excerpt to me.
nce upon a time, there was a Young Intellectual Poet who lived with his friends in a beautiful tower. He loved poems, and read often. One day, he read a Great Poem that imparted to him a deep sense of mystery. Assuming the poem itself must actually be a mystery, he set out to solve the poem. He researched and read, and came up with many theories. His writings on the poem and its meaning were very poetic. People liked what he said, and decided that he understood the poem very well, because they were dazzled by his writing, thinking, and theories.
Heartened, the Young Intellectual Poet began to write poems of his own. Thinking that great poems must necessarily be mysteries to be solved, he began to omit certain parts of his writing and obfuscate others. His poems became cryptograms, rebuses, and riddles. Only he and his friends held the keys to unlock the poems. They also wrote many papers about his poems and other enigmatic poems (for now such was the fashion), again using poetic language and intricate theories.
The people in the village loved the Great Poem that originally inspired the Young Intellectual Poet, because it imparted a sense of mystery to them as well. The new poems coming out of the tower, by contrast, simply confused them. But because it was said that the Young Intellectual Poet was a great artist, they assumed the fault must be with themselves. Gradually, the villagers lost interest in poetry, deciding they were not smart enough for it — except for the few that enjoyed solving riddles. They went off to the tower to study.
Here’s a test for the GRE:
Bad is to Accessible as
Good is to ____________.
Thanks to one of my longtime favorite etymology resources (besides the expensive OED, which I still don’t own), here are the antonyms of synonyms and synonyms of antonyms for “accessible” and related words — i.e. some possible opposites of “accessible” to consider:
Sound like some of the stuff you’ve sat through at dive-y cafe open mics? Sound like some of the stuff you’ve sat through written by perpetual intellectuals with little life experience? Sound like some of the stuff you’ve sat through by the most defended, guarded, insecure members of your writing workshop?
Based on this little bit of research, I have a new theory about why people sometimes write this way. Think of the people that write these poems. What do they want you to think about them — not their work — but them? That they are, in fact, enigmatic, lost, dark. They wear poetry like clothing (a beret, say) and write to be considered a writer. That you don’t understand gives them a sense of power, and that you are afraid to admit it gives them more.
By making art about the artist, rather than the work itself, we can so quickly loose sight of the audience and the most powerful possibility of artistic expression: to communicate. Next time you are about to choose the word “accessible” to dismiss someone’s poetry as simplistic or trite (which are better words, if that’s really what’s going on) — I implore you to consider all the antonyms above. Is that what you want to be encouraging in poetry?
By now, I have heard many poets complain about accessibility in poetry, and how it waters down the art. In fact, I have always firmly believed that poetry is about communicating an experience through art. The reader necessarily has to bring their faculties to bear, and maybe do some work. But beyond some pretty basic requisites, I’ve always felt that poems should be accessible.
Writing poetry has likewise become evermore accessible. The abundance of open mic readings, the explosion of small presses, self-publication, chapbooks, online journals, and MFA programs tells it. People write poetry, perhaps now more than ever, and naturally want to share their work. I don’t claim to fully understand why, exactly. But I have some thoughts on how we got here and what this means.