Clarifying Difficult Poetry

This is a shameless plug for the arduity project which I’ve mentioned before which is either an exercise in pure self-indulgence or an essential public service. The idea is to encourage ‘ordinary’ readers of poetry to engage with verse that is considered to be difficult. The sub-text is to encourage these readers to contribute their own response to this kind of work thereby creating a discourse outside of the academy.

At the beginning of the summer this seemed to be a great idea. I’d cut my teeth on Celan and Hill and was beginning to get a bit more coherent about Prynne and (as with any neophyte) was filled with ardent enthusiasm for all things difficult. Somewhere at the back of my skull I knew that this wasn’t quite that clear-cut but I plunged in without asking too many further questions. Three months in and the issues that I ignored come back to haunt me. The big one is the definition of  ‘difficult’ and whether the site should mainly focus on modernism, with its penchant for deliberate opacity, or whether other poets and poems should be included.

The other struggle is to get the balance right between enthusiasm for the subject and being overly didactic (my daughter’s term). I do want to give the impression that Prynne and Hill are a joy to read but I also want to give some indication as to why this might be the case and I am trying hard not to couch too much stuff in abstract terms. For example, I currently have a Charles Olson problem in that I’ve decided that the Maximus Poems are difficult in terms of form, length and the underlying ideas but I want to communicate the enthusiasm that I felt on my first reading. This is difficult because I’ve read a lot of background stuff since and it’s really tempting to talk about Alfred North Whitehead even though that would deter many first timers.

I don’t want to provide a blow by blow guide to individual poems because it’s important that readers do their own work of interpretation. What I think the site is trying to do is give readers the conceptual resources and confidence to begin to tackle this material. To this end the site also contains a list of resources and useful critics. This second element is tricky because I know what I’ve found to be useful but I’m also aware that others may find other critics more accessible. I’ve recommended Derrida on Celan because his reading is the one that makes most sense to me but his style is not to everyone’s taste….

I also recognise that I’m going to have to write about poets that I don’t like. There are some poets whose earlier stuff is much better than the later (Eliot, Ashbery) but there are also some that I can’t stand. I’m dreading the day when I have to write something positive about Rilke for example.

One of my concerns on putting this together was that it would spoil  the pleasure that I get from reading poetry. Thankfully this hasn’t occurred. Last night I spent a couple of enjoyable hours in Gloucester with Olson and smiled throughout. I’ve also taken delivery of  ‘Sub Songs’ which is proving to be intriguing.

This kind of project carries with it a sense of responsibility. I don’t want the site to enter into the various factional disputes that infect poetry but I do want to counteract the view held by some that difficult poetry isn’t worth the effort and the best way to do this is to provide examples of why the work of interpretation is worthwhile without trying to score points against the mainstream.

I’m also making plea for feedback on the structure and content of the site. I know that its design is very dated ( I last built a web site in 1999) but I am keen to know if the project is moving in the right direction. I’d also like to thank John Matthias and Jim Kleinhenz for their ongoing support and feedback.

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10 responses to “Clarifying Difficult Poetry

  1. I wrote about Prynne, very diffidently, back in the dawn of the internet age. (Bless Douglas Clark for keeping that online.) I vividly remember struggling with the same issues you’re taking up now. (My worry about expertise, thankfully, has dissolved since then.)

    Part of what I wanted to say then is that even to speak of clarifying difficult poetry is to some extent to bark up the wrong tree. Elucidation is of course welcome. But there will come a crux, with Celan as with Prynne, where there can be no elucidation, or where the connection or speculation that occurs to you is not sufficiently clarifying that its addition to the commentary in progress is an improvement. And at that point, the argument one would like to make to the reader discouraged by difficulty is a different one. Not so much, “This is actually clear if looked at the right way,” but “This is indeed unclear, but richly so, and the experience of not quite understanding it is valuable.”

    (And of course one would like to make that point in a way that’s not disqualified by future elucidation. In that old piece of mine, I turned up a productive allusion in the Prynne text at hand, which had been missed by an earlier commenter; I don’t think, though, that he had committed himself to the opacity of the passage.)

    All a roundabout way of saying that I welcome your project. I think the formal organization of the site is somewhat rigid, and draws attention to the gaps in the scheme. You could represent the same conceptual organization as tags on blog posts — over time, the “examples” tag, let’s say, would be used enough times that it would grow into a sub-archive of its own, worth drilling down into. And even the free WordPress will let you create fixed “pages” outside the temporal flow.

    Finally, tangentially, do you think it’s fair to say that Olson lacks variety of music, by comparison to the rest of your canon — even Prynne?

  2. Vance,

    I’m very grateful for this kind of feedback and I’ll try and respond to your points sequentially.
    You write very preceptively on Prynne, I found your views on the structure of the poems very useful- this is a concern that keeps running around in my head and your analysis will bring a bit more focus and resolve to that particular issue. I also love the “right to be wrong” stance- it’s one that we should all adhere to.
    I take your point with regard to elucidating all of Prynne and all of Celan but the main objective of the site is get get readers over that initial resistance to ‘difficult’ stuff and to give them a degree of confidence in their own ability to make some kind of sense. I’m not entirely happy with ‘clarify’ as the appropriate verb. Getting across the value in not quite understanding is okay if you’re speaking to the converted but to those who feel intimidated by the work and the academic clutter that surrounds it this may act as a further barrier. I will however give it further thought.
    The right to be baffled is okay if you’ve done the work and still remain mystified, I don’t think it’s reasonable to be baffled without making the effort to understand.
    I had thought about the blog format but I’m familiar and comfortable with information sites that stand alone. This may be because I’m a control freak but I do understand how stand alone platforms function and the monitoring tools give me the ability to monitor user behaviour/activity.
    With regard to Olson, I’m re-reading him in preparation for saying something intelligent on the site and I’m more and more impressed by the sheer strength of his work even though it is played on fewer notes. I’m also struck by his technical skill in taking the reader through several cognitive turns whilst making it seem effortless.

  3. I don’t think it’s reasonable to be baffled without making the effort to understand.

    Fair enough — I would weaken this slightly to “an effort”. I’d hate to set up minimum standards for bafflement by any particular text — but indeed, the pleasure of bafflement can’t be obtained by a passive scan.

    Rilke’s a puzzle. As far as I can tell, the German seems just as platitudinous as the greeting-card-like English translations. But Celan, I think, admired him.

    • By ‘the’ effort I think I was implying that readers should give something a fair degree of attention before accepting bafflement. I’m amused by the notion of when it’s okay to be baffled by a particular poem, but I do think it’s about people doing what they can.
      As for Rilke, I read him every now and again and I really can’t see what the fuss is about- is feeling that something is really average when everyone else praises it to the hilt another form of bafflement?
      Incidentally I do say on the toolkit page that it’s a mistake to look solely for meaning, but I will amend this to incorporate your original point

  4. Have you read Forrest-Thomson’s Poetic Artifice? Definitely a provocative “resource” for treating difficult poetry. I don’t know where you’re located, but out here in California, it’s findable through interlibrary loan.

    • It sits on my hard drive, I read it quickly last year but will revisit soon. Have you read Keston Sutherland’s riposte? It’s on the Jacket site, I’m currently wavering between the two positions.

  5. Hmm, that’s a monster of a piece. I’ve only sampled it so far, but it doesn’t seem to do more than quibble around one of VF-T’s readings. (“Despite this disgreement, however, my account is only a slight extension of Forrest-Thomson’s own definition of poetry…”)

    He spends a lot of time arguing that the quoted passage isn’t about angels. But it sure reads like angelology, and indeed Google Books confirms (a possibility Keery tries to anticipate) that the original is plainly about angels.

    Along the way, he gets tangled up incautiously with creationist argument about science, then incidentally overstates Lovelock’s involvement with CFCs and the ozone layer…is there a clear point buried in there?

    In any case, it would be no surprise to F-T herself that her book was internally inconsistent.

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