Thursday, August 30, 2007

Difficulty in Poetry.

One discussion that remained with me, having read Outside the Lines, was the nature of “difficulty” in poetry. That issue occurred again whilst reading a recent piece by a teacher of creative writing. Here, “difficulty” was simply described as an action by the critic: when critics don’t get something they call it “difficult”. This teacher of writing does not believe that poets go out of their way to be “difficult”. In England, this sort of lazy wisdom might be true. But Reginald Shepherd, during his interview in Outside the Lines, makes the point that his poetry is “difficult” and he means it to be “difficult” and he expects the reader to rise to that challenge. The poet William Empson addressed exactly this issue in relation to his own poetry in the 1980s. He pointed out that there was a growing gap between the poet and the reader. Either the poet had to reduce difficulty or the reader had to increase the level of response. Needles, to say, Empson did not reduce the difficulty of his work! It wasn’t really a negotiable point. Personally, I believe that Shepherd is correct. Poetry should be difficult, not because the poet wishes to adopt some perverse stance towards the mainstream and we should allow the poet to do so as a sign of toleration (the creative writer yet again) but because experience and communication are “difficult”.

What really annoys me, however, in this “difficult” debate, this side of The Pond, is that it is treated as a modern phenomenon. Suddenly, we have all these “difficult” poets and it’s not part of out tradition. This silliness really comes from double-ignorance. Difficulty has been around for most of the past century. But not in the good old English academic system where there is no Robert Duncan, no Charles Olson, no Wallace Stevens, no John Ashberry, no Ezra Pound, no H.D. It is the gap in global developments that makes “difficulty” appear new. Even worse, though, is the neglect of English poetry in terms of depth. The teaching of English poetry always stops with the surface. So, Blake is easy. Well, yes, if we are talking about a handful of well known poems set for A Level exams, a simple sample from Songs of Innocence and Experience. But the whole of Blake? The philosophy of the Zoas and all the prophecies? And Milton? Well, yes, if we teach him thematically, in schools, as a second-rate version of The Bible. (How this brings back memories of sitting round in tutorials where very nice students prattled on about the Evil One in Paradise Lost, reducing Milton to a story for Sunday School). I have just been re-reading Paradise Lost with “difficulty” in mind. Here is part of a well known love poem from Paradise Lost. Just a love poem. Just a poem by Eve, who wasn’t particularly bright anyway. Not “difficult” at all.

My author and disposer, what thou bid’st
Unargued I obey; So God ordains,
God is thy law, thou mine: to know no more
Is woman’s happiest knowledge and her praise.
With thee conversing I forget all time,
All seasons and their change, all please alike.
Sweet is the breath of morn, her rising sweet,
With charm of earliest birds; pleasant the sun
When first on this delightful land he spreads
His orient beams, on herb, tree, fruit and flower,
Glistering with dew; fragrant the fertile earth
After soft showers; and sweet the coming on
Of grateful evening mild, then silent night
With her solemn bird and this fair moon,
And these the gems of heaven, her starry train:
But neither breath of morn when she ascends
With charm of earliest birds, nor rising son
On this delightful land, not herb, fruit, flower,
Glistering with dew, nor fragrance after showers,
Nor grateful evening mild, nor silent night,
With this solemn bird, nor walk by moon,
Or glittering starlight without thee is sweet
But wherefore all night long shine these, for whom
This glorious sight, when sleep hath shut all eyes?

As a narrative, this is incredibly modern, but only if you see it through Mercurian eyes and read with Milton as a Puritan, Hermetic Neo-Platonist. Firstly, the overall positioning of this speech is key. It is in Book 4 of Paradise Lost. Following Spenser, who expounded much of the hermetical tradition in the Faerie Queene, 4 is the number of marriage and concord. This particular passage is the focus of the whole book, the point at which the harmony between Adam and Eve is established. Throughout Paradise Lost, speech lengths serve to set contexts. This speech by Eve is 24 lines long: the poem is about how a 24 hour day should be. 24 means more than that, however, for it represents12+12, the marriage of the Heavenly City and the Kingdom of Earth. (This speech is re-visited by Adam, in Book 8, on the 24th day of Paradise Lost when Raphael discusses the ways of Heaven and Earth, how the microcosm (Adam and Eve) should be married to the macrocsom (God and the Universe)…not accidental). Milton, as implied author, is shaping the architecture of his poem. Within this, Milton’s narrator, Eve, shapes her understanding of Eden.

Eve’s section is a serenade to Creation, written in the sweet style of the amor cortois, Dante’s “il dolce still nuovo” (Purgatorio: XXIV, 57) hence its sweet…sweet…sweet structure. The love song is shaped by a woman who understands love intellectually: “Donne ch’avette intelletto d’amore”, says Dante. And the serenade has a complex intellectual structure. 16 lines overall, from “Sweet is” to “is sweet”. The word order is reversed to suggest more than a flourish of rhetoric for the whole structure of the poem reverses. 16, hermetically, is the number of concord squared, and Eve splits the 16 lines into 9 and 7. The first 9 lines of the poem represent the permanence that Heaven brings to Earth. Then, in the second part, the number 7 of mutability takes over. Such is doubly stressed by the seven lines from “But neither” to “thee is sweet” and by the seven negations which occur (neither breath, nor rising, nor herb, nor fragrance, nor grateful, nor silent, nor walk). Through the whole 16 line poem, Eve expresses her understanding of how love binds the eternal to the transient. Though Eve says, “God is thy law, thou mine” and places herself in relation to Adam (as Adam relates to God), she shows herself to be intellectually creative, more creative in thought than Adam—hence the final question, which is not a throw-away line, as some Miltonists claim, showing her shallowness, but a final bursting out of what goes on in Eve’s mind: speculation about the universe through the power of Amor; an intellectual power that will eventually take her too far...

It is about time complexity returned to the world of poetry and the teaching of poetry and teachers and students got over facile discussions about “difficulty”. In education, at all levels, there needs to be an understanding that "difficulty" is good and readers need to teach themselves constantly how to read in new ways.


Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

You're right, "tonight's posting [is] provocative/interesting/counter-challenging" and goes beyond my 'ken' (there's that word again!).

But can't you see that you're at odds with my aim of finishing this paper by Sunday? How can I write this article if you keep challenging my assumptions?!

Actually, thanks are due to you for forcing me to rethink, clarify, complicate...

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

eshuneutics said...

Oh damnation, I've just emailed you, before I read this. You will have to stop up your ears and not listen to my siren complaints about Amor. I will be silent, I will be silent, I will be silent. :-)

Unsane said...

The subtle derision of "difficulty" is also connected to the feeling that we have historically gone beyond "authoritarianism", I'll wager.

Christopher Hennessy said...

Reginald has a great blog where, as I recall, he's also written about this subject. Kudos to on a great post, by the way.

Id it is said...

“difficulty” in education is no more a challenge, it's seen as an obstacle, and that is such a shame. Raising the barrier is no longer an option; dumbing things down, is!

People merely 'read' in the traditional sense of the word where the eyes move down the lines to comprehend the most overt message conveyed. The nuances, the subtleties, the implied, the covert may as well be non-existent! They are completely disregarded due to sheer ignorance; a result of the many years of peripheral and shallow reading practices that have come to be, and 'difficulty' in reading has been frowned upon.
The 'No Child Left Behind' act being the ultimate outcome!

eshuneutics said...

Unsane, hi, I sense you are right again: there is often a sense (as with the creative writing guy mentioned) that "difficulty" is connected to poet's being carefree and so beyond the strictures of critical control.

ch, I will look at RS's blog ans see how he expands his dialogue in OTL. Thanks.

id it is, I think you are correct. Certainly, in the classroom, there is a problem in doing complex work because it exposes how bad standards really are: as long as we measure the basics all looks well.

Unsane said...

Almost the final version of my article on Marechera is online now. Click on the profile side-bar section, entitled "African literature".

eshuneutics said...

Tjanks for the pointer about DCM, I will look forward to reading.

BronzeBuckaroo said...

If there is one thing I have learned from you, it is the need to read in new ways that are challenging. Thank you for just opening more doors for an non-academic as myself. :-)

Unsane said...

So I put a new introduction into the paper on marechera. It might help to tie all the otherwise extraneous elements together in a way which makes sense or shows my logic.

Saur♥Kraut said...

I agree with the need to keep poetry to a higher standard, but only to a certain degree. Incidentally, I speak as a published poet who has written things that aren't equivalent to fortune cookie slips.

HOWEVER... there is also a need to reach out to people who speak modern english. Most people aren't steeped in Chaucerian english (like it or not) and we lose much in connecting to the reader if we insist on them always rising to OUR level.

Aloofa said...

DIFFICULT? I seem not to understand why poetry should become some kind of drudgery. The modern world especially do not appear to embrace any literary enterprise that thrives on difficulty. Poets,we know, conceive reality in almost abstract form. It will be unfair to the mental capacity of non-poets to enjoy poetry if your assertion is allwed to stand.

Thanks for your comment on my poem.

JD said...

Eshu.... where are you?
Hope you okay....

BronzeBuckaroo said...

Here's hoping all is well with you. I know you have a life outside the blog thing. Still, well, you know me by now. I just want you be okay.

R2K said...

: )

Id it is said...

haven't posted in while...

eshuneutics said...

At last a post! Hope all is well with you all.

Reginald Shepherd said...

Hello again,

I hadn't realized that you had mentioned me earlier in your blog, which I quite appreciate.

I quite concur with your thoughts on "difficulty" in poetry, and your discussion of Milton is fascinating. I couldn't agree more with your position that poetry should be as complex as the world is--poetry should be difficult "because experience and communication are 'difficult'." You also make a good point that the notion of "difficulty" in hardly new. Samuel Johnson complained of John Donne's difficulty, and later Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keats were all faulted for their difficulty. In all of these cases, these writers were doing things outside the then-current norm; those things were then incorporated into the norm, expanding its boundaries and the possibilities available to poetry.

Too often there is a cultural leveling, in which the notion of "equality" means that everything must be "equivalent," and all cultural products must appeal to the lowest common denominator--which is also highly patronizing, assuming that "the masses" can neither be interested in or understand anything complex or challenging. One of your commenters' rather bizarre assertion that writing complex poetry is equivalent to writing in Chaucerian English (as if complexity were something obsolete which we must move past) is an example of this kind of thinking. A more egregious example is another commenter's assertion that difficult poetry is "unfair to the mental capacities of non-poets." Such condescending attitudes would discourage anyone from trying to read poetry--no one wants to be looked down upon.

The popularity of crossword puzzles, sudoku, video games, and even convoluted television programs like 24 and The Sopranos indicates to me that people do in fact enjoy challenges. But there is still the assumption that poetry is more difficult than other things (though many television commercials are more difficult to "read" than many poems), that only egghead intellectuals can enjoy or understand it, and that it has no "relevance" to "real life." That "relevance" could be a much broader category than simple and immediate identification is rarely considered.

As Christopher Hennessy was kind enough to point out, I have discussed the question of difficulty in poetry on my blog, in a post called "On Difficulty in Poetry," the revised version of which can be found at In this piece I discuss the question of poetic difficulty (including exploring the different kinds of difficulty, since people rarely define what they mean by “difficulty”) in a descriptive and analytic rather than a prescriptive and judgmental manner.

Thanks for a fascinating and thought-provoking post, and take good care.

all best,

Reginald Shepherd

eshuneutics said...

Dear Reginald Shepherd, I found your comment very interesting indeed. Yes, there does seem to be a confusion over "difficulty". I tried to explain Hamlet to a young person recently. He was prepared to meet the difficulty of Shakespeare, he said.. But I pointed out that he was not in fact meeting the "difficulty" of Shakespeare: reading Renaissance English is only the first step. The real "difficulty" and enjoyment is when you just accept the nature of the problem and get down to the psychological complexity of the blank verse. As you put it--exactly--"difficulty" is not just about the obsolete. I have been puzzling another blog recently which stated that the poet's first priority was to the audience (not the poet). I really cannot agree with this because this is where identity poetics starts to creep in: the self has a responsibilty to its audience and therefore has to be what the audience wants it to be. The point I wanted to make via Milton is that we have almost lost the means to read Milton--the difficulty is not theological, but a complex, hermetical framework. People substitute a lot of theological drivel into the poetry often to hide the fact that they cannot read it. I have been reading Empson. I find his unreadable. Yes, he is "difficult", but he also seems to not engage with words except as a sort of anagram. I can understand his poems (through the copious notes) but his poetry does not excite me because it has a "difficulty" that leads to a superficial engagement with emotion and thought. I admired your defence of the "difficult" because it is a crux that influences modernist poetry. Poetry is the most difficult literary form, and as Pound said, it is speech condensed--but that doesnot mean it is dense, dull, for dunciads.

Unsane said...

Don't you think there is a kind of moral rhetoric that somehow insidiously creeps in with regards to the issue of difficulty? A difficult poem is sort of on the rhetorical level of a 'difficult person' -- meaning someone who is deliberately wayward and needs to be pulled into line.

There is often little respect for the fact that both the difficult person and the difficult poem might be trying to communicate something essential and important.

Eshuneutics said...

This is really interesting. The term "difficult" poem is often said with a grimace, I think, at the person behind the poem. I am a "very difficult" person I am told.