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.