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 2)

Mother was walking in the living room, her Strauss Waltzes comb in her hair.    

We waited for a time and then joined her, only to be served tea in cups painted with pictures of Herman Melville

As well as with illustrations from his book Moby-Dick and from his novella, Benito Cereno.

Father came in wearing his Dick Tracy necktie: "How about a drink, everyone?"

I said, "Let's go outside a while." Then we went onto the porch and sat on the Abraham Lincoln swing.

You sat on the eyes, mouth, and beard part, and I sat on the knees.

In the yard across the street we saw a snowman holding a garbage can lid smashed into a likeness of the mad English king, George the Third.            

Koch's poem is difficult for one who wants to be solemn about it. It is not a trivial piece of writing; like Herbert's "Jordan" poems, it thinks seriously about the relation between expectation and experience. Koch brilliantly leads us into questioning our habits of understanding—a kind of generous teasing that is one of difficulty's attractive forms.

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            Sometimes dense extravagance of language expresses an ecstatic feeling, too intense—and in a way too clear—for the poet to fill in every step. The writing needs an expressive, reckless sweep. Here is Sylvia Plath's "Nick and the Candlestick":

NICK AND THE CANDLESTICK

I am a miner. The light burns blue.

Waxy stalactites

Drip and thicken, tears

The earthen womb

Exudes from its dead boredom.

Black bat airs

Wrap me, raggy shawls,

Cold homicides.

They weld to me like plums.

Old cave of calcium

Icicles, old echoer.

Even the newts are white,

Those holy Joes.

And the fish, the fish—

Christ! They are panes of ice,

A vice of knives,

A piranha

Religion, drinking

Its first communion out of my live toes.

The candle

Gulps and recovers its small altitude,

Its yellows hearten.

O love, how did you get here?

O embryo

Remembering, even in sleep,

Your crossed position.

The blood blooms clean

In you, ruby.

The pain

You wake to is not yours.

Love, love,

I have hung our cave with roses.

With soft rugs—

The last of Victoriana.

Let the stars

Plummet to their dark address,

Let the mercuric

Atoms that cripple drip

Into the terrible well,

You are the one

Solid the spaces lean on, envious.

You are the baby in the barn.

Rather than comment on this poem, I urge that readers go to the Favorite Poem Project, where Seph Rodney, who describes himself as "a Jamaican immigrant," reads and discusses Plath's poem. The way he says the poem, and what he has to say about it, demonstrate the nature of understanding, as distinct from that lesser thing, interpretation.

To some extent, reading poetry for pleasure is a matter of accepting the general idea and allowing details to be difficult. With the title of this poem, Wallace Stevens makes clear his attitude toward the idea that poetry should be soothing or genial. The poem's main idea is equally clear, though particular moments may be obdurately unsettling (and unsettled):

POETRY IS A DESTRUCTIVE FORCE

That's what misery is,

Nothing to have at heart.

It is to have or nothing.

It is a thing to have,

A lion, an ox in his breast:

To feel it breathing there.

Corazon, stout dog,

Young ox, bow-legged bear,

He tastes its blood, not spit.

He is like a man

In the body of a violent beast.

Its muscles are his own ...

The lion sleeps in the sun.

Its nose is on its paws.

It can kill a man.

People who wish poetry were more friendly and soothing sometimes refer to Shakespeare as both great and easy: the ultimate crowd-pleaser. But what about his poem "The Phoenix and the Turtle"? The poem is indeed very pleasing if you don't try to understand it as though it were part of some tricky question on a Scholastic Aptitude Test. If "The Phoenix and the Turtle" were an academic test, or a mere puzzle, rather than a work of art, this scholastic funeral speech for two married birds would be supremely difficult. Yet the bard seems to approach the difficulty, and the scholasticism, as great fun. One way to read the poem is simply to enjoy Shakespeare's way of imagining how a community of birds might hold a funeral for a perfect, paradoxical couple: the Phoenix, symbol of solitary rebirth (without coupling), and the turtledove, symbol of happy coupling.

Here, then, is Shakespeare having the last, exuberant, and resistant word in this bouquet of difficulty:

THE PHOENIX AND THE TURTLE

Let the bird of loudest lay,

On the sole Arabian tree,

Herald sad and trumpet be,

To whose sound chaste wings obey.

But thou shrieking harbinger,

Foul precurrer of the fiend,

Augur of the fever's end,

To this troupe come thou not near!

From this session interdict

Every fowl of tyrant wing,

Save the eagle, feather'd king:

Keep the obsequy so strict.

Let the priest in surplice white,

That defunctive music can,

Be the death-divining swan,

Lest the requiem lack his right.

And thou treble-dated crow,

That thy sable gender makest

With the breath thou givest and takest,

'Mongst our mourners shalt thou go.

Here the anthem doth commence:

Love and constancy is dead;

Phoenix and the turtle fled

In a mutual flame from hence.

So they loved, as love in twain

Had the essence but in one;

Two distincts, division none:

Number there in love was slain.

Hearts remote, yet not asunder;

Distance, and no space was seen

'Twixt the turtle and his queen:

But in them it were a wonder.

So between them love did shine,

That the turtle saw his right

Flaming in the phoenix' sight;

Either was the other's mine.

Property was thus appalled,

That the self was not the same;

Single nature's double name

Neither two nor one was called.

Reason, in itself confounded,

Saw division grow together,

To themselves yet either neither,

Simple were so well compounded,

That it cried, How true a twain

Seemeth this concordant one!

Love hath reason, reason none,

If what parts can so remain.

Whereupon it made this threne

To the phoenix and the dove,

Co-supremes and stars of love,

As chorus to their tragic scene.

THRENOS

Beauty, truth, and rarity,

Grace in all simplicity,

Here enclosed, in cinders lie.

Death is now the phoenix' nest

And the turtle's loyal breast

To eternity doth rest,

Leaving no posterity:

'Twas not their infirmity,

It was married chastity.

Truth may seem, but cannot be:

Beauty brag, but 'tis not she;

Truth and beauty buried be.

To this urn let those repair

That are either true or fair

For these dead birds sigh a prayer.

TODAY IN SLATE

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