Tuesday, February 26, 2008

`Difficult, Up to a Point"

I read several impenetrable poems online over the weekend. I bothered only because a writer I respect spoke well of them. They were written by a living American poet and have a shiny, brittle veneer. The syntax is straightforward, even dull, as is the vocabulary. There’s nothing surreal about them but they seem unyielding and inert, like chunks of polished steel. They sit on the page, or the screen, and give nothing, including pleasure, which caused me to give up trying to fathom whatever depths they might possess. Obscurity, I think, must come with a reward.

In other words, I’m not opposed, on principle, to obscure or difficult poetry. If you can exhaust a poem after one reading, it’s not much of a poem, and some of the most difficult poems in the language, written by Donne, Hopkins and Geoffrey Hill, are among my favorites. I’m only speculating here, but perhaps poetry, even extremely difficult poetry, must possess a strategy of reciprocity, an implied contract between writer and reader. I, as reader, agree to focus time and attention on a poem, bring to it my education and experience, whatever intellectual and emotional gifts I possess, and in turn I receive – what? Pleasure, which I know covers a lot of ground, but in my case includes musically interesting language (even prose offers this, though not often enough), a sense of resonance, of meaning and significance just beyond my immediate comprehension. The first pleasure must be the words in my mouth, even before I understand them. Poet-critics as various as T.S. Eliot, Basil Bunting and Eric Ormsby have said similar things.

I remembered an essay, “Benign Obscurity,” published in The New Criterion in 1997 by the late Donald Justice, and included in his prose collection Oblivion. He begins with a qualified defense of obscure poetry:

“I hope I will not be seen as joining the very popular revolt against reason and good sense if I suggest that there is in fact something to be said for obscurity in some of its simpler forms. It can at the very least be a sign of the presence of something hidden, of something perhaps too difficult to express easily, or even, for some tastes, a sort of code for the seemingly spontaneous or inspired.”

Justice is having some gentlemanly good fun here -- “obscurity in some of its simpler forms” – but he’s also making a serious point. If a poet wishes to be read and appreciated beyond a minute cadre of exegetes, he or she aims for a balance somewhere between incoherence and the phone book. Developing this theme, with the same quietly satirical voice, Justice writes:

“Whether the uncertainty lies with you or with the poet, or in what ratio the blame is to be apportioned, would vary from case to case. I must suppose that most poets, even if they do not make it their constant aim to say everything with the utmost clarity, do not go much out of their way on purpose to prevent understanding. It would be only the self-consciously experimental poet who would do this, and for that reason we may leave the experimental poet out of our study. For I like to think that all the best poets are capable of thinking, and thinking straight, and probably intend to do so most of the time, although they do not always manage to stick to the plan.”

I’m not sure if the poet whose work left me flummoxed over the weekend can rightly be called “self-consciously experimental.” It’s a little late in the Modernist/postmodernist game to be making such distinctions. Is John Ashbery “self-consciously experimental” or merely boring? Can an experiment go on for 50 or 100 years and still be called “experimental?” Justice continues:

“I am one of those who like poetry that is difficult, up to a point. It engages more of the whole man; I am bound to it by more ties of association.”

That may sound suspiciously subjective and even philistine to avant-gardists and proponents of ironclad theories, but I assume many readers intuitively understand what Justice is talking about, and I think it’s another way of formulating the “contract” mentioned earlier. Justice calls it “benign obscurity.” Read his reading of Hopkins’ difficult yet wonderfully readable “Spelt from Sybil’s Leaves” to appreciate his approach. Despite its density and weird music, the poem is compelling because, he argues, “there may be as much theology in it as there is human feeling, but what comes across is the human feeling.” To further substantiate his point, Justice cites the work of a much plainer poet, E.A. Robinson, some of whose work he calls “neither simply straightforward nor impenetrable.”

One thing seems certain: Willful obscurity, difficulty that originates in a desire merely to confound readers, that masks emptiness and swells the poet’s sense of self-importance, goes unread, or unreread, and turns to dust or random electrons.

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