What makes poetry difficult, anyway?

Arts, entertainment, and more.
April 23 2007 10:56 AM

In Praise of Difficult Poetry

The much-maligned art.

(Continued from Page 1)

Mazur's translation conveys that doubleness of tone—it would be easy to miss how much the poem relishes its catalog of woes. Michelangelo elaborates physical difficulties as a way to suggest the spiritual or psychological trials of art. William Butler Yeats, in contrast, implies that what's really difficult for him is not poetry but committee meetings, administration, dealing with jerks, and group undertakings like plays:

THE FASCINATION OF WHAT'S DIFFICULT

The fascination of what's difficult

Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent

Spontaneous joy and natural content

Out of my heart. There's something ails our colt

That must, as if it had not holy blood,

Nor on Olympus leaped from cloud to cloud,

Shiver under the lash, strain, sweat and jolt

As though it dragged road-metal. My curse on plays

That have to be set up in fifty ways,

On the day's war with every knave and dolt,

Theatre business, management of men.

I swear before the dawn comes round again

I'll find the stable and pull out the bolt.

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The winged horse, ancient symbol of poetry, offers the "spontaneous joy" the speaker misses. Notably, though, Yeats does concede in his title that all that business of production and collaboration is fascinating, more or less because it is difficult. But what he really wants to do, he says at the end, is free the winged horse of poetry from its confining stable. The colt has been made into too much of a workhorse, when it should be leaping from cloud to cloud. In a clever, oblique way, Yeats seems to join Michelangelo in implying, "I am too good for this!"

And what if you don't know that poetry is symbolized by a winged horse? Does that allusion make Yeats' poem too difficult? I think you would get the general idea without knowing the allusion. But of course, the more you know, the better off you are, as in most pursuits. As Robert Frost says of his work, with its buried Classical references:

It takes all sorts of in and outdoor schooling

To get adapted to my kind of fooling,

But that doesn't mean we should dread "wrong interpretations." They can be enriching. Poet and critic John Hollander points out how difficulties in the King James translation of the Psalms ("Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me. ...") can help a child create interesting characters: "Surely, good Mrs. Murphy shall follow me all the days of my life." Misunderstanding can be profitable, or just enjoyable: A woman I know recalls the song "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen" being enhanced by hearing the sexually charged "By Mere Bits to Shame."

Great poets have muttered to themselves about their own difficulty as writers. Here is George Herbert, in the 17th century, writing two wonderful poems, both titled "Jordan" after the river of cleansing. As announcements of the poet's supposed conversion to simplicity, the poems are somewhat fancy:

JORDAN (1)

Who says that fictions only and false hair

Become a verse? Is there in truth no beauty?

Is all good structure in a winding stair?

May no lines pass, except that do their duty

            Not to a true, but painted chair?

Is it no verse, except enchanted groves

And sudden arbours shadow coarse-spun lines?

Must purling streams refresh a lover's loves?

Must all be veiled, while he that reads, divines,

            Catching the sense at two removes?

Shepherds are honest people; let them sing:

Riddle who list, for me, and pull for Prime:

I envy no man's nightingale or spring:

Nor let them punish me with loss of rhyme,

            Who plainly say, My God, My King.

JORDAN (2)

When first my lines of heav'nly joy made mention,

Such was their lustre, they did so excel,

That I sought out quaint words, and trim invention;

My thoughts began to burnish, sprout, and swell.

Curling with metaphors a plain intention,

Decking the sense, as if it were to sell.

Thousands of notions in my brain did run,

Off'ring their service, if I was not sped:

I often blotted what I had begun;

This was not quick enough, and that was dead.

Nothing could seem too rich to clothe the sun,

Much less those joys which trample on his head.

As flames do work and wind, when they ascend,

So did I weave myself into the sense.

But while I bustled, I might hear a friend

Whisper, How wide is all this long pretence!

There is in love a sweetness ready penned:

Copy out only that, and save expense.

The image of the poet weaving himself into the sense the way flames "work and wind" is so beautiful, and so complicated, that it contradicts the advice that he just "copy out" some already-available sweetness. Herbert's description of his habits of  complexity and allusion, in both poems, take up more space than his brief, closing simplicities. And what looks plain or even naive is actually a form of ingenuity: Consider how he uses only two rhymes over six lines in all three stanzas of "Jordan 2."

Kenneth Koch also displays ingenuity while feigning simplicity, in a different way. His poem "You Were Wearing" happily plays around with cultural references. It is relevant to mention here that the word allusion meant "wordplay" long before it meant "reference"; the word is based on the same root as ludicrous and ludic:

YOU WERE WEARING

You were wearing your Edgar Allan Poe printed cotton blouse.

In each divided up square of the blouse was a picture of Edgar Allan Poe.

Your hair was blonde and you were cute. You asked me, 

            "Do most boys think that most girls are bad?"

I smelled the mould of your seaside resort hotel bedroom

on your hair held in place by a John Greenleaf Whittier clip.

"No," I said, "it's girls who think that boys are bad." Then we read Snowbound together

And ran around in an attic, so that a little of the blue enamel was scraped off my George Washington, Father of His Country, shoes.

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