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?

Advertisement

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.

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.

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.

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.

            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.

Former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky is Slate's poetry editor. His Selected Poems is now available.

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Nov. 21 2014 1:38 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? See if you can keep pace with the copy desk, Slate’s most comprehensive reading team.