Some thoughts on difficult poetry

Before my hiatus, i did something i have never done. i wrote a handful of poems in a style i assumed a chosen journal would want to read. i made a royal pig’s ear of them. The poems, if i should salvage anything, would be nothing more than an egg cup full of lines, with room to spare. They are clunky, difficult, clearly forced. The information, the subject matter, is honest enough; they are on the surface interesting & yet fall far of the grade, considerably.
Why couldn’t i write difficult poems packed with dislocated ideas & disembodied images, rather than rote, concrete images & anecdotal snippets which, i have directly perceived & then designed into poetry? i have written imaginative poetry without struggle. My Charlie Malurkey poems are odd beyond good reason, written in a difficult, nigh illegible  English slang & yet they don’t make me wince in horror.
After reading a short post on difficult poetry, by the poet Marie Marshall, a poet who constantly challenges & upgrades my perceptions about poetry; i was able to finalize some reasons for venturing to the difficult mode, leaping over the spectral fence i kept bumping into.
Marie begins with a quote by Lyn Hejinian (a poet i must make an effort to become better acquainted with), who explains that poetry which is hard to read, may in fact be a form of realism giving the poem’s language material reality, palpability, presence and worldliness. This avenue of poetry is engaging in its own right.
Marie takes from this her own base, from which to justify writing difficult poetry. Justify isn’t supposed to insinuate the necessity for defense; or at least it shouldn’t need to. Rather, something like a manifesto of intent.
Marie herself says ‘Accessibility’ isn’t the point. Everything is inaccessible until you access it, and to access something doesn’t necessarily means you’ll instantly ‘get’ it. i’d like to expand on this.
Marie really is bang on the mark here. i had it rolling round my head for a while, trying to extract what i needed to compel my own writing. It was that odd sensation of feeling what you need to know technically.
There are a variety of criticisms against difficult poetry, a frequent one, is that it is poetry for a studied elite, which is bosh; at the personal, subjective level, even to the most duteous reader, this form of poetry is tough going— the difference is that a duteous reader’s approach & acceptance of its difficultly, demands of them a consistently, unique misprision. Other’s find its seemingly meaningless content & stumbling block; but then it goes back to approach. Isn’t all literature at the mercy of our subjective opining? No one knows the exact message a poet had in mind when they wrote a line. & yet it doesn’t stop us applying the line to contexts far removed from both the social & historical juncture at which it gasped for air & scrunched its eyes at the hard light of day.
Dylan Thomas is a difficult poet & yet immensely popular, in his own day & now. But if we take one of his most famous lines, Rage, rage against the dying of the light couldn’t we use it in more than the context of Thomas’s father’s death or any person’s death whatsoever? We could use it to personify the early onset of night during an English winter. We could use light as a metonym for any number of problems or objects that affect us. How about I make this in a warring absence or my favourite, Light breaks where no sun shines? Though admittedly limited, there are nevertheless additional contexts with which we can place these lines, & they make sense. We essentially give lines a proverbial function.
Difficult poetry seems to me an invitation to contextualize loosely, to place yourself in different contexts & sample them. To pick at the poem like you might rummage through a shoe box full of fragments or a skip full of broken machinery. While reading it, you have a safe place to cut your teeth on underdeveloped contexts. I write for everybody. I write my poetry to turn it over to you. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to read, Marie explains. This is an offer, an environment where you can get things wrong without having to worry about the consequences. How often do we find such places? Life isn’t like this you may respond. Does that mean we shouldn’t create spaces where these regions can be parsed? How this can be contextualized negatively is beyond me. It is far removed from any egotistical, intellectual posturing.
If the difficult poet is just writing to showcase their intellectual aplomb, then i am in cahoots with their critics. The act of creation should be about draining ideas, testing the waters of them, an act of catharsis to plunge out the depth of the poet’s mind, not showing off, it’s preposterous. But it’s just as preposterous to use this as an argument for not challenging oneself to read poetry openly, even if a serious attitude potentially, ends in humour.
i read a lot. i am a voracious reader of news & i read broadly. It all gets processed somewhere. As a poet i am at the mercy of gauging my understanding of a subject & reckoning, from a volume of knowledge, whether it is recyclable into poetry. What difficult poetry gives me the opportunity to do is put to use all this information, to put it to diatactical use (click here to read Daniel Schnee on this). Why do i need to be an expert on Foucault, Integrated Information Theory, Trans-humanism, biology or politics to find a line for them in a Contemporary poem? Born in a slapdash, passive world, where all topics burgeon, incessantly refined or nitpicked to a fault, by all manner of people; in such an environment, a poem becomes a statement about that society.  i have, under the blanket of difficult, the duty to make use of everything, & turn it over to you as a reader & together or even individually, to entertain the world’s complexity if only for 5 minutes.
So when a poet decides to mash this all into a bunched up space of 10 lines, we should not see this as an inability to stay focused, or assume they struggle to write something meaningful; not a jot— we should encounter it as a statement of intent: to show reality for what it is, an attempt to formulate an earnest expression of what has been observed. This is sensitivity on overdrive.
Life is complex. If art is to take up the project of technological, political, economic & societal complexity, which is clear for any person with their eyes open, then the simple lyric of bygone eras is not going to cut it. It is an anachronism. It has to evolve to deal with what is happening, to address in some way this era. If it doesn’t, it risks being labelled, & abandoned as useless or merely, entertainment. It risks its own utility. It is usually salvaged by the plethora of viewpoints about art, which i will speak about in another essay.
Difficult poetry has been part of literature syllabuses for decades now. It is naïve for people to still be criticizing it for being meaningless. My curiosity was always tugged at by high output writers, like Charles Olson, John Ashbery, or Adrienne Rich; all wrote copiously, because they had untangled themselves from the constrictions of conventional sense & perhaps saw an interconnectedness that few can articulate with everything. i have been the worst critic, not so much for my approach to reading it, but mostly for failing to find the value in writing it.
Considering these developments, it’s clear that awareness of the poetic skin i wear, understanding my timbre & limits over the last couple of years, as i’ve zeroed in on writing about a particular (peculiar) environmental subject, has enabled me to make a value judgement & begin seriously working in this difficult mode, with the knowledge that it is not a default. Put simply, i have evidence enough that i can write a poem with a conventional meaning, it is only logical as a poet that i strive to attempt poetry that is unconventional, even meaningless. Light breaks on secret lots, / On tips of thought where thoughts smell in the rain. I’m thereabouts.

Keep yer ears puckered for some difficult poems by yours truly, in the meanwhile, read Marie’s original post on difficult poetry.

27 Comments Add yours

  1. robert okaji says:

    Reblogged this on O at the Edges and commented:
    Daniel Paul Marshall offers some thoughts on difficult poetry.

    1. Well aren’t you the gent of gents. Thanks Bob. i think your poetry goes in the category of ‘difficult’ Would you agree?

      1. robert okaji says:

        I like to think that it requires a little work to get the full effect, even with some of the relatively simple language and images I use.

      2. Yes. Like Dylan Thomas (though i don’t think your poetry is similar in tone) you sort of give evidence of the theme, object or scene, rather than present it directly, which has a remarkable effect. There is no need for difficult language when the approach to expressing the thing itself is taken unconventionally.

      3. robert okaji says:

        I find the indirect (the under-direct?) more interesting to consider. And to live.

      4. What do you mean by under-direct?

      5. robert okaji says:

        The undercurrent, the subconscious’s directive, the unspoken, the implied. Perhaps buried under layers, but still there.

      6. I like that term under-direct, sort of like G.W.Hopkins’ Inscape. This may just creep into my vocabulary.

      7. robert okaji says:

        An off the cuff creation, but one that seems to better define a result that I enjoy and strive for.

  2. Daniel, you may have noticed that I am in a kind of mini-hiatus myself, over at kvenna ráð. I think this may be because writing about ‘difficult poetry’ has made me a little self-conscious about the actual poetry I’m currently writing. Should I stop now? Should I look for a new direction? Is there any ‘new direction’?*

    I seem to remember that Audre Lorde once said something like “I don’t write theory. I’m a poet.” I think I know what she meant by that, although she did so much for ‘theory’ by being outspoken. I love writers who punch above their weight. But like her, I do prefer writing to writing about writing.

    Well, the prime motive, therefore, in commenting here today is to thank you for picking up this particular ball and running with it. I don’t have anything to add, except to say I have taken the trouble to alert my own readers to this article.

    *I have recently heard passages from a collection of poems commemorating Martin Luther King, for example. They are neither ‘easy’ nor ‘difficult’, but they are direct. Just saying. God forbid I should try to imitate someone else, just because I’m in a back-eddy at this moment.

    1. i did suspect you were taking a step back.
      i have benefited immensely from this hiatus. Though i didn’t write for a few weeks, i was thinking a lot & reading much more. After just putting the pen down for a while when i finally picked it up again it just flooded in, like i’d released a valve.
      It has always been important for me to justify my projects. i like transparent writers, by which i mean, writers who can articulate their process. If i can do that i can write better. i suppose it is something of the ego tugging at my shirt cuffs, but it is also that i want myself to know that i am in control. Control up to a point is essential to me. i want to be able to give an outline of process & origin as far as possible. But looking at difficult poetry, i had to outline it, because i knew i would be going into a flood. My new poems are a mess of conversation snippets, character studies, actions, reactions, images, news, ideas & just out right oddness. But i need to do it, i need to exhaust all these peculiarities that are always there, pounding at some wall asking me for a space. If i don’t do it i just might pop, but i still need transparency to proceed. So thanks for the jolt, i am glad to pick this ball up & go with it.
      i saw your re-blog, thanks for spreading it. i am happy with the response & re-blogs for this post, not expected, so i’m chuffed t’bits.
      i am absolutely sure that giving yourself a break to think out new approaches will bring something valuable into the light of day.
      Great poem about Thomas. It’s interesting to read you in this mode. It almost doesn’t suit you, if you know what i mean.

      1. The sonnet? It’s a product of a time when I devoted my strength to formal poetry, in the knowledge that, firstly, it could be a good vehicle for expression and, secondly, that it could lend technical power to my writing in general.

      2. It is natural to wet our beaks in the formal, it is enticing, the rules make us feel we are a part of some ancient mystery, with rules & a muse. i am still subconsciously fixed to a driving metre.

  3. Pingback: 117 | Kvenna ráð
  4. Tim Miller says:

    This is a great start to a discussion. It’s really just preference; I’ll feel like the old fart here, remembering Larkin said somewhere that the rule for him was that the reader basically “Understand the poem” the first time round, but that it be evocative or rich enough to deserve a million more readings. I guess I generally follow that, & that it should be something to read aloud, it could be something you hear without seeing the page, & generally understand.

    I heard a reading Ted Hughes gave towards the end of his life: he read from his Ovid, gave the shortest introduction of context, & read the poem & it was immediately lucid. Then he read an original poem, prefaced & pretty much explained it autobiographically, & then read the poem–& at least I found the explanation much better than the poem, which wasn’t nearly as lucid or memorable as his off the cuff explanation. The question is something like that, some balance between being too simplistic & direct that there’s no foundation or need to return; but avoiding being so idiosyncratic & difficult only a few people will give a shit. It’s awfully easy to write something only five people can understand.

    You know I love the ancients, so when a guy like Geoffrey Hill said his poetry was difficult & complex “because life is difficult & complex,” that seems a bit of BS; Homer or even the authors of Gilgamesh lived in a terrifically difficult & scary time, & their poetry is generally comprehensible. As far as I’m aware, Ezekiel’s batshit crazy vision, is nevertheless written in vaguely normal Hebrew. I think the same about the Greek tragedies, poetry that’s meant to be publically performed or read, so my bias there colors everything else.

    1. You’re right Tim, “preference” IS the point. i am not trying to advocate an acceptance of difficult poetry over easy poetry, just to be clear.
      As i said to Marie somewhere, i think manifestos & a transparency of intent is interesting & moreover, important. Perhaps part of the process of being a poet, maybe; a big maybe.
      What i wanted to do with this essay is give a valid reason for bothering to try reading difficult poetry, as even readers of poetry will steer away from it. But as i say in the essay, we are happy to find a context within our own lives for a line of poetry that we get, taking it from its original context for our own, whatever that may be & i give some brief example using Thomas’s “Rage,rage against the dying of the light”.

      A difficult poem that is so oblique it cannot be followed, perhaps is more difficult to do this with, but nevertheless, it can still be of value in some way, if only we make an effort.
      i don’t agree with you about Hill & the Greeks. i don’t know Hill’s poetry well. But i agree with him. The ‘difficult’ & ‘scary’ is not the same as the ‘complex’. i’d say this is a safer time, for a percentage of the globe. Our anxieties arise from different problems entirely, but nevertheless are clearly affecting us, locking us into a private world, without the comfort of a close history, myth & faith; ruled by vast wealth we have little access to & yet which could alter everything for everyone. What seems more frustrating to a poet or thinker now, is how obvious the strategy is for change & yet how remote it feels. But the information & our access to it is on a whole other level. There are so many more educated people now. Google has altered everything & putting smartphones in our pockets has allowed us to ask a machine a question & it spew up not just an answer but a counter arguement(s). That has changed everything. The average Greek perhaps had no source at all to reference anything. They couldn’t even print a book. Poetry is information & yes, feeling & a whole host of other phenomena, but still, a block of information & if it is to move with the times & be relevant, it has to parallel the information saturation. Difficult poetry, i would say, has an answer for this. i hope that my new ‘difficult’ poems do illustrate this. If not, i hope you’ll tell me & i’ll remedy it.

      1. Tim Miller says:

        I’m glad two non-dogmatic fellows can talk abt this. No, I shouldn’t have said Hill was BS, it clearly worked for him, tho I’d still disagree with the two of you that anything in the modern world seems make difficult poetry more likely. Just imagining the poets of Homer, recently out of their dark ages, or the fifth century poets & dramatists living lifetimes of continual war, & still with mostly pre-scientific notions in things like disease & natural disasters etc., & I’d guess they felt a bewilderment & powerlessness as much as we do, but for different reasons.

        I think prose can teach us about this too. A guy like Don DeLillo approaches modern anxieties & paranoias & complexities in a much more “literary” way, whereas a more “popular” spy novelist can cover the same ground, sometimes better & sometimes not, in a entirely different way. Or a straight documentary compared to a more auteur-ish film about the same event; I don’t think the time demands a more experimental approach. It’s like the difference between Dubliners & Ulysses; both are valid but I guess I’m more in the mood for the former now. Pound said only divine vision or a cure for the clap would make him go through Finnegans Wake; I think he partly meant that what JJ was after could be said better & more simply. I’d agree, but I’d also never pretend to throw anyone off their inspiration, even if I don’t care for the end result.

        This is all over simplified. It’s all mostly about trust, too. I’d read anything at all of yours, since knowing you & reading yr poems I know yr after the real. I can’t wait to read what you come up with. The best part about all of this is that we’re not standing still, we’re continuing to look elsewhere for ways to do it.

      2. “Non-dogmatic” yes, very much, lets keep that up, without floundering.
        So i’ll add, why is the majority if not all of literature up until the 20th C (ruling out Browning’s ‘Sordello’ perhaps the most experimental, daunting piece of literature of all time) not really ‘difficult’, archaic perhaps, owing to the alterations in language, but essentially, straight forward expression? People would ask me how i could read Milton, they say it as this impenetrable fortress, but it isn’t, it is pretty straightforward. He gives you everything.
        i do agree that they would have felt moments of ‘bewilderment & powerlessness’, because faith & the trappings of “why aren’t my prayers being answered” must have caused a certain anxiety. But then wasn’t the answer simple “If God wills it…”
        Love that little anecdote about Pound on FW.
        I think your conclusions brings everything under one roof though, “trust” does make me return to authors & find value where others might not. & for me ‘difficult’ is merely that “look elsewhere for ways to do it” it can never be the sole method, but it is one that must be on a par with other forms of expression. i think that is something we didn’t touch upon, ‘difficult’ is not accepted as much a ‘easy’ poetry & yet i see no reason why. Or maybe it is. i dunno. Life is confusing sometimes.
        Much obliged for the compliments too Tim. Always means a lot.
        One of these ‘difficult’ poems is already up, featuring Larkin, the British high street, dreams about Tardigrades & some bad & forgotten figures of history. Read on dot dot dot

      3. Tim Miller says:

        I’d guess straightforward was the game because poetry was the main vehicle for history & expression, even after history broke off into prose. Milton is pretty much straightforward as you say. I’d guess some of it too was that it was performed, or at least just read aloud, from Old Testament books to Homer & Virgil, to recent Kalevala—but those were also riffs on stories the audience wd be familiar with, & wd take pleasure in seeing a slightly different version of. But with the loss of the glamor & faith in shared religious or national histories, the anxieties you mention, each poet is different & weird in their own way (ditto painters etc). This could all be garbage as explanation, but it’s one reason I’ll try true crime as poetry, since those are our folklore & shared stories, aside from sports. …..& I feel silly saying anything at all against the difficult, since I’d not be here without TSE & Stevens etc, & even somebody supposedly more simple as Whitman is vastly strange too…….. a great topic, but now I’ll read the poem

  5. Pablo Cuzco says:

    I hear you. What has brought on my writer’s block is the struggle between the need to write difficult poetry (thanks for the knowledgeable description of what that means) and the process I’ve developed in the past years of writing simple, easy to read stories with a definite punch. But my attempt at heart-stopping common sense and “thought provoking” pieces, as you put it, has reached its limit, yet it’s difficult to write difficult, disjointed, abstract symbolism and metaphor and still speak with music. One of my poems, The Order of Law almost got there. Though it is lacking, I really felt I got off the ground working its simple phrases into semi-obscurity. A small start.

    This essay was very timely and illuminating. Thanks for that.

    1. i highly recommend you read Daniel Schnee’s three part look into the creative process, a link to the 3rd part is in my essay. i think the stuff of diatactical thinking will be helpful to you. It is a way to systematize loose association, for finding parallels where otherwise, you just might not think to look.

  6. Hi Daniel, this was an informative read (including the comments), but I really just wanted to say “welcome back,” and wish you every success in your poetic venture. 😃

    1. Yer a gent Steve, a gent of the first order. Thanks.

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