What makes poetry difficult, anyway?

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

In Praise of Difficult Poetry

The much-maligned art.

In previous years, Slatehas paid ambivalent heed to National Poetry Month by publishing poems against poetry, or poems in which the poet disparages other people (and their poems), or poems expressing unpleasant sentiments.

This time, let's take up a serious issue: the stupid and defeatist idea that poetry, especially modern or contemporary poetry, ought to be less "difficult." Should poets write in ways that are more genial, simple, and folksy, like the now-unreadable work of Edgar Guest (1888-1959)? Guest's Heap o' Livin' sold more than a million copies (in the days when a million copies was a lot), and he had his own weekly radio show. But Guest's popularity is history, while every day people still read the peculiar, demanding poems of Guest's approximate contemporaries Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens. People still read the poems of Moore and Stevens because they don't wear out, because they surprise and entice us—and maybe, in part, because they are difficult?

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Difficulty, after all, is one of life's essential pleasures: music, athletics, dance thrill us partly because they engage great difficulties. Epics and tragedies, no less than action movies and mysteries, portray an individual's struggle with some great difficulty. In his difficult and entertaining work Ulysses, James Joyce recounts the challenges engaged by the persistent, thwarted hero Leopold and the ambitious, narcissistic hero Stephen. Golf and video games, for certain demographic categories, provide inexhaustible, readily available sources of difficulty.

The issue of difficulty in art is far from new, though people may like to refer to some unspecified good old days, when stuff was easier. Randall Jarrell questions such glib nostalgia in his landmark essay "The Obscurity of the Poet":

When a person says accusingly that he can't understand Eliot, his tone implies that most of his happiest hours are spent at the fireside among worn copies of the Agamemnon, Phèdre, and the Symbolic Books of William Blake.

To update Jarrell: When a person says accusingly that he can't understand contemporary poetry, his tone implies that most of his happiest hours are spent at the fireside reading Eliot's "Four Quartets" or "The Waste Land."

So, here is a little anthology of poems about and exemplifying difficulty.

Among other things, difficulty enables us the luxury of kvetching about it, as Michelangelo Buonarotti does in this poem, wonderfully translated by Gail Mazur:

MICHELANGELO: TO GIOVANNI DA PISTOIA WHEN THE AUTHOR WAS PAINTING THE VAULT OF THE SISTINE CHAPEL

—1509

I've already grown a goiter from this torture,

hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy

(or anywhere else where the stagnant water's poison).

My stomach's squashed under my chin, my beard's

pointing at heaven, my brain's crushed in a casket,

my breast twists like a harpy's. My brush,

above me all the time, dribbles paint

so my face makes a fine floor for droppings!

My haunches are grinding into my guts,

my poor ass strains to work as a counterweight,

every gesture I make is blind and aimless.

My skin hangs loose below me, my spine's

all knotted from folding over itself.

I'm bent taut as a Syrian bow.

Because I'm stuck like this, my thoughts

are crazy, perfidious tripe:

anyone shoots badly through a crooked blowpipe.

My painting is dead.

Defend it for me, Giovanni, protect my honor.

I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.

Anyone who has engaged in demanding work should recognize the subterranean pride in this joyful grousing and self-deprecation. "I am not a painter" may mean "I am really more of a sculptor," but it also means, "I am a great painter"—in the same way that "This math homework is too hard for me" means "Look at what hard stuff I can do." Michelangelo's complaint is also an oblique, comically energetic celebration of difficulty. He knew he was good.