The Mystique of the Difficult Poem
When I was about fifteen I fell in love with Hart Crane. The poems in White Buildings, The Bridge and Key West shimmered with the most fragile and delicate poignance. It was the very music of the soul’s anguish. As for Crane’s suicide, that was icing on the cake: it made the work even more tragic, more unbearably gorgeous. The fact that I had only the vaguest idea what he was talking about, and sometimes not even that, bothered me hardly at all until I was in my twenties and the pure music of Crane began to seem less enticing than the work of poets who, in addition to their engaging linguistic skills, actually seemed to have something coherent to say. Although Crane’s pervasive obscurity was more tolerable than that of poets who were less exquisite musicians, l had by then read enough incomprehensible poetry to know that I wanted something more. I wanted marvelous music to be sure, stunning figures, an imaginative linguistic playfulness that was everywhere inspired and surprising, but I also wanted poems that spoke to me with thrilling precision and insight. The “ambiguities” that the New Critics imagined to be at the center of poetic craft seemed almost always to weaken rather than strengthen my experience of the poem. Though my first reading of a poem is likely to take pleasure in the language, the tonalities, the music and linguistic sparkle, the intelligence and taste behind the phrasing, nonetheless I find myself unlikely to finish reading a poem if it becomes apparent that the poet has no intention of communicating much of anything beyond all that language, all that music. Far be it from me to invade his privacy. If I want pure music I can listen to Palestrina and Sam Cooke.
At about the same time as my uneasiness over modernist incoherence was growing, Allen Ginsberg, himself still a young man, was beginning to publish a poetry that was more fierce, emotionally charged, and appealingly human than anything I had read from his more staid and conventional contemporaries. And not the least of his virtues was that he was perfectly coherent. The stuff wasn’t filled with footnotable literary allusions and hopelessly gnarled syntax and untrackable metaphoric acrobatics. “Howl” opened up a territory, at least for me, that the modernists had spent the first half of the century trying to close off. Suddenly the doors of possibility had been flung wide open. There was plenty of freedom, plenty of room to move around and to do what the avant garde had never dared to do–write poems in coherent English.
And then, when I was twenty-seven, I moved to the West Coast and picked up Robinson Jeffers, and was stunned anew. He was as wonderful a musician as any of the modernists I’d read, easily as fine and conscious a craftsman, but his poems, like Ginsberg’s, were perfectly understandable. Jeffers’ music was certainly not as ecstatic or intoxicating as Hart Crane’s, but then again he never seemed ornamental, precious, histrionic; he was never without flesh and substance. Jeffers not only had something of moment to say but he managed to say it, as had Ginsberg, without resorting to a hundred subterfuges, misdirections, ambiguities. Moreover, Jeffers’ vision was larger by far than that of his contemporaries, those high modernists who had dominated American poetry during the first half of the twentieth century.
Of course, in the background of my life, there had always been Whitman: larger and wiser than any poet had been before or has been since, and everywhere luminously clear. But somehow, perhaps because he was not of my century, or because he was a poet of such singular genius, his ability to speak with the utmost clarity about even the most subtle and all but inexpressible matters hadn’t been able to serve me as a model. Under the influence of Whitman, Ginsberg and Jeffers, the canonical American poets, with their inordinate love of difficulty, began to lose their luster. I became profoundly suspicious of the whole modernist enterprise. As a fledgling poet I had written enough high-flown gibberish myself to know its seductions. Though I would continue to read occasional poems and passages in poems that were thrilling, however inexplicable, the business of writing incoherent poetry seemed tiresome, and I wanted nothing to do with it.
This, I fully realize, is a minority opinion, at least among poets, academics and critics. Though I imagine the vast bulk of the reading public feels much as I do–hence their indifference to contemporary poetry–I suspect many in the trade will find such an attitude appalling, for impenetrability is still widely admired. A recent review in The New York Review of Books claims, for example, as though it were a sign of the poet’s talent and distinction, that Eugenio Montale “will lead commentators into all kinds of difficulty when it comes to establishing the content of many of the poems.” The reviewer, discussing at length a particular twelve-line poem from Montale’s early collection, Cuttlefish, happily admits that he has almost no idea what it means, though it is one of Montale’s “simplest” lyrics. “What, overall, is the poem about?” he asks. “Even with this simplest of lyrics, the essential nub winds off into a cloud of possibilities.” But this unclarity at the “essential nub” of so many Montale poems is, so the reviewer assures us, among the poet’s chiefmost virtues. The genius of Montale’s work is achieved through “a prodigious density encouraging ever more complex levels of consciousness, and evoking the finest shadings of emotion colored by every variety of thought.” The reviewer, Tim Parks, is a knowledgeable reader of Montale’s poetry, and his praise of poetic incomprehensibility is not at all unusual among those who read poetry seriously. Nonetheless, if you look at his assertion closely, you will see that it is little more than a sophisticated version of the bemused college freshman’s belief that a poem isn’t really supposed to mean anything at all, so that the reader can have the pleasure of making it mean whatever he wants it to mean. When Tim Parks reminds us that “poetry in this century has become more cryptic, more private, more untranslatable,” there is, in his voice, no hint of reproach. This assertion, that “difficulty” is one of modernism’s defining virtues, has been so frequently injected into the body of contemporary aesthetics that it has become an unchallenged and toxic part of its bloodstream.
In The Best American Poetry of 1990, Jorie Graham makes perhaps the most eloquent, lengthy and detailed recent defense of difficult and indeterminate verse. In one typical passage she writes:
“When we experience a loosening of setting or point of view, and a breakdown of syntax’s dependence on closure, we witness an opening up of the present-tense terrain of the poem, a privileging of delay and digression over progress. This opening up of the present moment as a terrain outside time–this foregrounding of the field of the “act of the poem”–can be explained in many ways. We might consider the way in which the idea of perfection in art seems to be called into question by many of our poets. On the one hand, some might argue today, the notion of perfection serves ultimately to make an object not so much ideal as available to a marketplace, available for ownership–something to be acquired by the act of understanding.”
In this passage, Graham is recommending not just the virtues of being “indefinite” about the poem’s setting, but the value of employing a syntax that guarantees that the reader will be confused about anything the poet might be trying to say. The tactical advantage of this seems to be that if readers have no idea what you’re talking about and are unable to pay attention to either the narrative or the ideas (because, in fact, the poet has refused to articulate any), they will be forced to attend to “the field of the ‘act of the poem’,” that is, I take it, to the manner of its saying: the phrasing, juxtapositions, music, diction, imagery and such. This, I assume, is what she means by “an opening up of the present-tense terrain of the poem,” and what she means by suggesting, in a phrase that seems somewhat inflated for its occasion, that such poems are “outside time.” Apparently, if there is no narrative, no temporal instance that is being described, the poem is, therefore, “timeless.” Finally, she seems to suggest that the idea of a “perfect” poem, or the attempt to write such a poem, produces something that, by virtue of being accessible to the general reader, becomes no more than a contemptible “commodity.” This notion betrays a patrician haughtiness that one imagines Graham would be loathe to confess more directly. Elsewhere in that essay she writes:
“The genius of syntax consists in its permitting paradoxical, “unsolvable” ideas to be explored, not merely nailed down, stored, and owned; in its permitting the soul-forging pleasures of thinking to prevail over the acquisition of information called knowing.”
For Graham, thinking and exploration seem to mean no more than being vague and ambiguous enough so that neither the author nor the reader can recognize, let alone explore, any genuine idea or perception. This, of course, is not what we tend to mean by genuine exploration of ideas but is only the facade of such exploration, and indeed what is being recommended in her essay seems nothing but a poetry of facades. Her introductory essay, made up almost entirely of this sort of piffling, goes on for some fourteen pages, all to glorify the lofty desire of the poet to resist making sense. This is the open-ended, exploratory, multivoiced, indeterminate, opaquely textured, disjunctive and defamiliarizing, closure-free world of postmodern poetics. And if it promotes a poetry that is “free of any user,” it augurs as well a poetry that is likely to be free of many readers.
While Graham wants others to share her heady excitement over such verse, it is apt to prove a difficult sell, though her own experience of such poetry, she insists, is nothing short of redemptive. Here, in her somewhat overheated prose, she captures (or invents, depending on your view of her credibility) the rapturous, revival-meeting spirit that overcomes her when she listens to the glossolalia of incomprehensible verse:
“the motion of the poem as a whole resisted my impulse to resolve it into “sense” of a rational kind. Listening to the poem, I could feel my irritable reaching after fact, my desire for resolution, graspable meaning, ownership….It resisted. It compelled me to let go. The frontal, grasping motion frustrated, my intuition was forced awake. I felt myself having to “listen” with other parts of my sensibility, felt my mind being forced back down into the soil of my senses. And I saw it was the resistance of the poem–its occlusion, or difficulty–that was healing me, forcing me to privilege my heart, my intuition–parts of my sensibility infrequently called upon in my everyday experience in the marketplace of things and ideas….”
Mercifully less decorative is Graham’s discussion, near the beginning of her essay, wherein she admits–though only, I would guess, as a rhetorical ploy–that she feels some uneasiness about the enterprise of writing poetry that resists being understood. Here, it is interesting to note, the misty cerebral romance of the rest of her essay is nowhere to be found. Here she writes in cogent English–perhaps because she has something unequivocal to say:
“Yet surely the most frequent accusation leveled against contemporary poetry is its difficulty or inaccessibility. It is accused of speaking only to itself, of becoming an irrelevant and elitist art form with a dwindling audience….For how can we hear that “no one reads it,” or that “no one understands it,” without experiencing a failure of confidence….We start believing that it is essentially anachronistic. We become anecdotal. We want to entertain. We believe we should “communicate.”
In the lexicon of modernism, “anecdotal,” “entertain,” and “communicate” are indeed beneath contempt. They stand with “self-expression” and “sincerity” as the sort of sorry business in which only the novice and the inept engage. But if poets have far more noble goals, as Graham assures us they have, than to concern themselves with so tawdry a matter as making their poems intelligible, whatever these goals might be they seem too ephemeral and rarified to attract the common reader, who is likely to find behind the claim little of substance and nothing of interest. Jorie Graham, one of our most praised contemporary poets, represents the aesthetic thinking of those who, like Parks, find difficulty a decided virtue. Indeed, she envisions a poetry that is not merely difficult but indeterminate, that is to say, incomprehensible. And if Graham’s rationale seems a bit murky, what is one to say of something like this, the opening half-sentence of an essay by Charles Bernstein, a leading “theoretician” among the American postmodernists:
“Not “death” of the referent–rather a recharged use of the multivalent referential vectors that any word has, how words in combination tone and modify the associations made for each of them, how ‘reference’ then is not a one-on-one relation to an ‘object’ but a perceptual dimension that closes in to pinpoint, nail down (this word, sputters omnitropically (the in in the which of who where what wells), refuses the build up of image track/projection while, pointillistically, fixes a reference at each turn…”
More reasoned and modest than Jorie Graham’s, and far less silly and dismissable than Bernstein’s, is the defense of difficult poetry recently set forth by Donald Justice, who argues that certain kinds of obscurity in poetry are “not altogether destructive” [“Benign Obscurity,” from Oblivion: On Writers and Writing, Story Line Press, 1998]. The least persuasive of his arguments is the curious notion that a poem without “hidden meanings” is likely to be trivial or frivolous, an assertion that he makes in passing and does not bother either to explain or defend. Nor does it seem likely, from anything his essay suggests, that he would be able to. Though he distinguishes a “benign” sort of obscurity from that form of obscurity for which he has less indulgence ― what he characterizes as the “blanketing fog that can creep over everything”–he seems to be saving his approval, for the most part, for a poetry of magnificent music which makes the obscurity of its text seem not only palatable but perfectly appropriate, a part of the poem’s necessary texture–a quality without which the poem would be something less imposing and less memorable than it is. Justice, who makes such suggestions in the most provisional and tempered language, argues that “one may be led on, and cheerfully enough at times, by precisely one’s failure to grasp what is being said. And there is the excitement, meanwhile, of being in beyond one’s depth.” Though it is possible, I suppose, that an opaque passage or phrase in an otherwise clear text can be intriguing, and can add a certain color and excitement to a poem, I am not fully convinced of it. Though the joy of pure poetic music and language certainly has its rewards, they seem ultimately smaller rewards than such poetry would have were the same quality of language tethered to intelligible subject matter and perception. Imagine Hart Crane, for example, writing a poetry of the same verbal richness and intensity, but one that was filled with brilliant and fully lucid descriptions, narratives, characterizations, and insights. I hardly imagine it would be a lesser poetry.
Justice makes an even more interesting argument about the success of many of the more obscure poems of Hopkins, Hart Crane and Dylan Thomas when he suggests that “the singular power of such poems seems to penetrate the emotional system directly, without ever having to pass through the understanding.” But this, it seems to me, is to make too much of the fact that one can catch the flavor, subject, attitude and emotional tone of a passage with only a few verbal cues. That certainly seems true. But with the exception of a few heady examples–poets of glorious musical skill such as the ones Justice cites–it is hard for me to think of many poets who can carry the day on their musicianship alone. It is to suggest, I think, that the content of poems really is an unimportant aspect. Perhaps that is true for Justice. I know it is not true for me. His third argument is that the obscurity of a narrative poem such as E. A. Robinson’s “Eros Turanos” might, perhaps, be “expressive of the very understanding the poem is intended to carry.” By this he seems to mean that the poem’s narrative unclarity might be rooted in–that is, it might be a consciously formal or strategic correlative for–the moral complexity of the situation it purports to describe. I confess at once that the suggestion seems farfetched, and the very fact that Justice himself is so uneasy about postulating it leads me to believe he’s about as unconvinced by it as I am. I suspect, rather, that he so much admires both those parts of the Robinson poem that are clear and the prosodic and writerly skill of the whole that he has allowed his good common sense to be swayed by a number of other critics who admire the poem, in part, for the very reason that it doesn’t entirely make sense. To my taste, Robinson’s best poems are, however subtle in their narrative strategies, nonetheless perfectly clear. When he fails, which is often enough, it is because of an inability or unwillingness to tell his story with sufficient clarity. “Eros Turanos” has fine passages and, here and there, admirable moments of complex psychological portraiture but, in the end, the poem collapses beneath the weight of its unclarity. Although Justice wonders if those critics might be right that its very unclarity is a virtue, he seems uneasy about the proposition and not entirely convinced, and his essay ends with the most modest of claims. For certain poems or certain kinds of poems a degree of obscurity, he posits, is simply unavoidable, and with such poems “the obscurity is no handicap, perhaps even has its uses–can we claim this much?”
It seems to me that the widespread critical belief that poetry needn’t communicate has had disastrous consequences for the art, and that a shockingly large part of the poetry of our own time is, with its blanketing fog of obscurity, altogether unreadable. In the end, neither avant-garde Language Poets like Charles Bernstein nor well-meaning postmodernists like Jorie Graham are to be blamed for this mess. Children of the age of theory, the postmodernists argue that communication isn’t really possible anyhow and that no reading of a “text” can be “privileged” over any other: that is to say, language itself is indeterminate. But this idea is by no means the radical break with the modernist tradition that it might at first seem. It is, rather, its natural extension: postmodernist “indeterminacy” being the logical extension–or at least the reductio ad absurdum–of the defining modernist penchant for difficulty. It wasn’t Charles Bernstein, after all, but T. S. Eliot who suggested that “meaning” was a questionable expedient that we could well do without, nothing more than meat thrown to the watchdogs while the burglar robbed the house. It need be said at once that Eliot never practiced quite so radical a poetics as his remark suggests. At its best, which is a good deal of the time, his poetry, however nonlinear, is brilliantly coherent. Though the various settings of a poem like “Prufrock” continue to shift disconcertingly, in Eliot’s controlled hands the collaged, unanchorable narrative, a fusion of interior anxieties and exterior perceptions and assertions, remains, however complex and novel, brilliantly intelligible.
By the Forties, the fashion for the difficult had become so pervasive that the subject of incoherence and indeterminacy rarely arose as a significant issue in critical discourse. And although a good number of our best poets are no longer engaged in that sort of enterprise, and take pleasure in writing a poetry that, however wild, subtle and surprising, is perfectly lucid, indecipherability is still much in vogue, as one can prove by glancing through just about any contemporary anthology or poetry journal. This opacity, which has effectively killed off any possibility of a large American readership, has been a reigning fashion in conventional poetry for almost a century now, and while it is still common to hear the virtues of difficulty extolled in the critical literature, it is exceedingly rare to find even the most tepid dissent. If there are serious poets and critics who are appalled by this facet of the contemporary aesthetic, they have been politic enough to keep their mouths shut. But its absence from serious consideration is probably less a matter of conscious decision than the fact that the ideology is so pervasive it has become an all but unchallengable assumption, as if difficulty were a necessary function of what poetry is, a fundamental condition of the art itself.
Which is why, I suppose, the issue has not been a significant feature of any of the poetry pie fights of the past few decades. Fought out at the edges of the Great American Kulturkampf–that low-intensity protracted warfare between an ascendant conservatism and a liberalism that dare not speak its name–these periodic skirmishes, often emblematic of the larger national conflict being waged over America’s soul, reveal a good deal about who we are and what we believe. A few years back, for example, Joseph Epstein, in a bit of conservative nostalgia, provoked an amusing squabble by suggesting that our verse had notably degenerated since the era of Eliot and Stevens. Another battle raged over the “neo-formalists,” who wish to return us to the prosodic rigors of the past. At the same time, there was the marginally memorable flap over the deconstructionist aesthetic of the Language Poets who were either registering a monumental epistemic breakthrough, as they themselves loudly proclaimed, or were merely “long on theory,” as Allen Ginsberg once pointedly suggested. Apparently, many mainstream poets who smirk at the relentless incoherence of those avant-gardists delude themselves with the comforting notion that their own brand of highly complex, disjunctive, and imagistically dense poetry is, if one only reads sensitively enough, perfectly intelligible. In the latest poetry brouhaha, Harold Bloom, a tireless advocate of difficulty in poetry, has registered his pique at the new multicultural barbarism that is undermining the Western intellectual tradition. With the universities’ urgency to teach an inclusive, gender-conscious, multi-ethnic curriculum, it is Bloom’s fear that the “major” poets and novelists of the English tradition will be abandoned by the academy in favor of undistinguished figures whose only virtue is that they are representatives of various “under-represented” minorities. At the same time, so Bloom would have it, the critical establishment has been seriously undermined by post-structuralist, and decidedly anti-canonical notions of literature, language and culture. American poetry is self-destructing, he insists, under the influence of “the French diseases, the mock-feminists, the commissars, the gender-and-power freaks, the hosts of new historicists and old materialists.”
In his essay, which appears as his introduction to The Best of the Best American Poetry: 1988-1997 (a later volume of the same series in which Jorie Graham’s essay appeared), Bloom is indignant at the dumbing-down of the university curriculum as indicated by the widespread sanctioning of cultural studies departments: that is to say, all those Black, Hispanic, Feminist and Queer arrivistes who have managed to elbow their way into seats at the academic banquet. More particularly, he is in a dither over the likes of Lady Mary Chudleigh and Anne Killigrew having insinuated themselves into those hernia-inducing tomes that undergraduates are forced to lug from building to building on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This reprehensible attack on the Western canon, he assures us, is a byproduct of “cultural guilt” and successful hectoring by “The School of Resentment.”
Apparently, in tilting toward affirmative action set-asides–toward homosexuals, women, undeserving poets of color, the politically correct and hyphenated-Americans–these offending anthologies have been insidiously undermining the foundations of our civilization. Not surprisingly, in the many rejoinders that have been made to his broadside–most notably in the Spring ’98 Boston Review, which was devoted to such responses–he is roundly attacked by a number of poets for his cultural conservatism and, by a few postmodernists, for his aesthetic conservatism. Carol Muske, in the brightest and most eloquent of those published responses, defends the revisionist Heath and the revised Norton by recalling, during her college days, paging through anthologies of poetry, in vain, looking for the names of women. Surely there was some other female writer besides Dickinson or Sappho? Maybe the Countess of Pembroke? How thrilling it was, back then, to find a female name, even if it was attached to a relatively uninspiring poem. It was thrilling just to see that women wrote, were published. So room had to be made for these other voices–beyond the best. And beyond The Best of.
Several of the other Boston Review respondents take Bloom to task for one or another of his blind spots. But it seems to me both significant and lamentable that not a single essayist responding to Bloom took issue with what I take to be his most pernicious assertion: “Authentic American poetry,” he declares in that bilious introduction,is necessarily difficult. . . our situation needs aesthetic and cognitive difficulty. . . it is our elitist art, though that elite has nothing to do with social class, gender, erotic preference, ethnic strain, race, or sect. “We live in the mind,” Stevens said.
This insistence on poetic opacity is questioned only by those postmodernists among the Boston Review respondents who insist that poetry ought to be more incomprehensible yet. Apparently what Bloom finds objectionable among the deconstructionist critics, those pernicious purveyors of “the French diseases,” is their subversively anti-hierarchic beliefs about literature and culture, and has nothing to do with the macaronic density of their language. This is hardly surprising: the love of jargon-saturated, dizzyingly complex rhetorical footwork which those infected with the “French diseases” find so attractive is not, after all, so different from the kind of academic flapdoodle upon which his own critical reputation rests.
As for his insistence on the very necessity for difficulty, Bloom is in the absurd position of having to claim that even Walt Whitman was, “above all else, a very difficult poet,” while asserting with a straight face that Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, and John Ashbery are Whitman’s true heirs. In order to spin Whitman in the image of poets so utterly inimical to his spirit, he simply stands Whitman on his head. On an earlier occasion he had declared that Whitman’s statement of ecstatic longing, “To touch my person to some one else’s is about as much as I can stand,” was the poet’s confession that he found human touch repulsive. An unreconstructed Freudian, Bloom is capable of making any statement mean what he wishes it to mean. Freud’s main technique for this kind of convenient fast shuffle was “reaction formation,” a putative psychic mechanism that transformed things into their opposites. When a patient said or dreamed something that confounded the analyst’s interpretation, it was simply a reaction formation: that is, the patient’s meaning was the very opposite of what it seemed to be. Thus, according to Bloom, “Whitman’s poetry generally does the opposite of what he proclaims its work to be: it is reclusive, evasive, hermetic, nuanced, and more onanistic even than homoerotic.” This, of course, is embarrassing nonsense. As for living in one’s head, a la Wallace Stevens, that is precisely what Whitman is at pains to warn us against. When he tells us that he is “Both in and out of the game, and watching and wondering at it”–a line Bloom quotes in his essay–it is not, as that critic assumes, to register the kind of self-conscious alienation from life that his favorite modernists display. Rather, the poet is declaring that he does not live in thrall to the common delusions of the ego, but has awakened into the unmediated world: that he is not an intellect filled with attitudes and opinions, but an empty, observing awareness. As for “difficulty,” Whitman proclaims: “I will not have in my writing any elegance or effect or originality to hang in the way between me and the rest like curtains. I will have nothing hang in the way, not the richest curtains.” Against the corollary modernist principle that poems are made of words, not ideas, he memorably declares: “The words of my poem nothing, the drift of it everything.” But the case of Whitman also offers to us the cautionary example of the dangers of canonical literary judgments: Our “best” poets and critics, blind to his genius, dismissed him as a vulgar eccentric, until the zeitgeist shifted in mid-century and everyone suddenly noticed his bearded figure towering above our literature.
However, the most curious and provocative portion of Bloom’s essay was not his attack on multiculturalism or his absurd revision of Whitman, but his attack on Adrienne Rich, whose Best American Poetry of 1996 was the only one of David Lehman’s annual series from which Bloom did not draw work for his Best of the Best. Rich’s anthology is emblematic for Bloom of the wretched state of literary affairs, exemplifying everything that’s wrong with the new affirmative action poetics. Itis of a badness not to be believed, because it follows the criteria now operative: what matters most are the race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnic origin, and political purpose of the would-be poet. I ardently wish I were being hyperbolical, but in fact I am exercising restraint….Bursting with sincerity, the 1996 volume is a Stuffed Owl of bad verse, and of much badness that is neither verse nor prose.
With this judgment at least three of the Boston Review respondents unequivocally concur: one, J. D. McClatchy, is an enthusiastic advocate of difficult poetry. The other two, Marjorie Perloff and Reginald Shepherd, disdain meaning altogether. Perloff finds many of Rich’s choices “relentlessly PC…maudlin, self-righteous, boring, and ultimately just plain incompetent.” A tireless champion of the poetry of impenetrability, it is hardly surprising that she would find Rich’s penchant for the accessible, emotional and socially engaged antithetical to her tastes. For Perloff, any poetry that doesn’t exhibit an uncompromising indeterminacy smacks of the platitudinous and sentimental: soap opera masquerading as art. Not surprisingly, Perloff faults Bloom, too, for his reactionary poetic tastes, his inability to appreciate the “genuinely radical poetry now being written,” by which she means the unabashedly incomprehensible writers whom she has been championing for the past many years. McClatchy’s criticism, less idiosyncratic than Perloff’s, is more telling for the fact that it shares Bloom’s particular elitist predilections. The first poem in Rich’s volume, written by a prisoner at the Pelican Bay State Prison serving a twenty-two year sentence for burglary, is, he declares, a piece of “utter banality” and symptomatic of her volume as a whole. With its “clutter of clichés, sentimentality, confused syntax, and flailing gestures,” it is a poem that McClatchy finds downright campy. An attempt to express the dehumanizing horror of a prison notorious for its systemic brutality, “In the Tombs,” by Latif Asad Abdullah, is indeed an unsuccessful poem, but not because of sentimentality or platitudes. Rather, its flaw is a more common one: the inability to make its case with the incisive power that its subject demands. On the other hand, McClatchy’s use of the word “campy” to characterize a poem about such enormous personal anguish strikes me as rather chilling, and perfectly typical of the crippling emotional disability that he shares with many of his fellow academic poets and literary critics. For such writers any unarmored feeling is to be avoided at all cost, a need that is likely to make the distancing strategies of obliqueness and opacity seem appealing. Given that pathology, one understands why to such writers “sincerity”–a word that both McClatchy and Bloom use as a smirking pejorative–would seem threatening. Actually, Abdullah’s poem about Pelican State–one of her collection’s few unpolished pieces–is not at all symptomatic of the Adrienne Rich anthology, while the weaknesses of Bloom’s book can, I believe, be fairly characterized by McClatchy’s own lengthy contribution to that collection. Like one of those wits who imagines himself endlessly amusing, McClatchy’s poem, “An Essay on Friendship,” rambles on for some two hundred and seventy lines in that excruciatingly sophisticated, three-martini tone peculiar to the academic gentility. More ruinously, the poem’s narrative thread is wilfully obscure. McClatchy, who is by no means an untalented writer, and whose poems, though sometimes uninteresting are almost always skillfully composed, tells us in his little explanatory note at the end of the volume that certain sections of “An Essay on Friendship” will only be understood by readers familiar with Renoir’s film, Rules of the Game. Clearly, then, the poet has only the most minimal interest in communicating much of anything with his reader: whether or not he is understood is of little concern to him. Not far from McClatchy’s endnote in the Bloom anthology is another telling one, in which Richard Wilbur wryly reports that after his wife had read his poem “Lying,” she remarked, “well, you’ve finally done it; you’ve managed to write a poem that’s incomprehensible from beginning to end.” But immediately Wilbur assures us that on second reading she found it “quite forthright” (no doubt with a little cuing), and then tells us that he makes no apology for the fact that the poem requires several readings. “Provided it’s any good, a poem which took months to write deserves an ungrudging quarter hour from the reader.” But Wilbur’s scolding the reader for not spending enough time puzzling out his poem misses the point. One is reminded of Norman Mailer’s apology, some decades back, for having used as an epigraph to one of his early collections of essays the admonition: “Do not understand me too quickly.” Older and wiser, Mailer had come to understand that if even experienced readers were misapprehending him, the fault was his own: clarity is the writer’s responsibility, not the reader’s. Surely when Richard Wilbur’s poems are a joy to read, as they so often are, it is because that exquisitely deft versification is the brilliant vehicle for ideas and arguments rendered with lapidary clarity. Here, for example, are the final stanzas of that wonderful “Aubade,” in which he argues to his beloved that staying in bed is the most reasonable of her options:
“Think of all the time you are not
Wasting, and would not care to waste,
Such things, thank God, not being to your taste.
Think what a lot
Of time, by woman’s reckoning,
You’ve saved, and so may spend on this,
You who had rather lie in bed and kiss
It’s almost noon you say? If so,
Time flies, and I need not rehearse
The rosebud-theme of centuries of verse.
If you must go,
Wait for a while, then slip downstairs
And bring us up some chilled white wine,
And some blue cheese, and crackers, and some fine
Though he believes adamantly that “strong poetry is always difficult,” it is noteworthy that Harold Bloom includes in The Best of the Best a good number of poems that are perfectly clear, and these are the poems that are most likely to raise the hair on the back of one’s neck: poems by May Swenson, Kay Ryan, Amy Clampitt, Allen Ginsberg, Ed Hirsch, Philip Levine, and Molly Peacock, among others. Donald Justice is represented with a memorable elegy for Henri Coulette in which the poet asks his friend to “Come back and help me with these verses/ Whisper to me some beautiful secret that you remember from life.” Although Donald Hall has a strained exercise in vatic rage, an ersatz-Ginsbergian rant that strikes a note decidedly false, it is followed by one of his exemplary poems, this one about Jane Kenyon’s dying, a poem that is the very model of simplicity, clarity and unadorned honesty. The two poems together make a fine study in the dangers of the postured and the virtues of the sincere, the authentically felt. Also of note are two stunningly powerful and perfectly accessible pieces by Louise Glück. In “Vespers,” the narrator argues with God for having let her tomatoes die:
you have a heart, in our understanding of
that term. You who do not discriminate
between the dead and the living, who are, in
immune to foreshadowing, you may not know
how much terror we bear, the spotted leaf,
the red leaves of the maple falling
even in August, in early darkness: I am
for these vines.”
All told, Rich’s anthology is just about as good as Bloom’s, its major virtue being that she has a lively eye for the coherent and the unashamedly human, the openly emotional and exuberant kind of engaged poetry that many American poets have been writing since the 60s. Were there anthologies filled exclusively with the work of such writers, American poetry would have a fighting chance of regaining its rightful audience. Rich assuredly does not agree with Bloom that the aesthetic is an autonomous realm independent of political and cultural ideologies, or that poetry is ruined by social engagement, or that a less rarified, intellectualized poetic is the death blow to our literary culture. Not surprisingly, there is a good deal less here of the mannered rhetoric that pervades Bloom’s choices and a good deal more of a poetry awake to the world outside of the poet’s head. Since a good two-thirds of Rich’s offerings are by well-known, well-respected poets, and since her volume contains, as he grudgingly acknowledges, the work of several of the same writers that appear in his own, Bloom’s claim against it is seriously undermined. Surely it was not discerning taste but sheer petulance that kept him from being able to acknowledge how many fine poems she has brought together in her collection. He might not have been able to appreciate the emotional power of Raymond Patterson’s “Harlem Suite” or Luis Alberto Urrea’s long, rhapsodic, open-hearted elegy for his father, not because he harbors any racism–he most likely does not–but because that sort of gritty, heart-centered, anti-intellectualized poetry, which owes nothing to the tradition of Wallace Stevens, is the sort for which he has little patience. Though Bloom’s abhorrence of explicit social compassion might have made him immune to the powerful, history-drenched poems of Alicia Ostriker and Wang Ping, and to the fine, socially engaged ones of Ann Winters, Chase Twitchell, Gary Soto and Alma Villanueva–for compassion, like sincerity and accessibility, is not a modernist virtue–there are several pieces in her anthology that would undoubtedly have interested him had he not been in such high dudgeon. He would likely have been drawn to W. S. Merwin’s “Lament for the Makers,” with its nicely jagged, Dunbar-esque rhythms and off-rhymed couplets, especially given its generous sprinkling of literary gossip, and it is hard to believe he wouldn’t have given serious consideration to “Touch Me,” a Stanley Kunitz love poem that is surely going to find its way into numerous anthologies of twentieth-century verse. Both poems share the traditional metrical skills that Bloom, for all his admiration for Ashbery, most admires. Rich’s anthology also contains finely made pieces by Reynolds Price, Jane Kenyon, Naomi Shihab Nye, Yusef Komunyakaa and half a dozen others that would certainly have merited his attention. She is to be congratulated for looking beyond the rhetorical commonplaces of conventional poetry and including pieces that are far removed from the academic mainstream. Not the least of the poems she chose for her anthology is a sestina by Katherine Alice Power, an antiwar radical who is presently serving an eight-to-twelve year sentence for participating in a bank robbery back in 1970 which ended in the murder of a policeman. Her surrender in 1993 provoked enormous national publicity and debate. Power’s impressive and touching sestina for her son is a useful example of how to employ a form that even in the hands of competent poets tends to sound forced, formulaic and insincere. On the other hand, the clunkers in the Rich anthology share with Bloom’s clunkers the same overriding flaw: they’re incomprehensible. And by this I do not mean to suggest that clarity determines the quality of poetry: most emphatically it does not. Surely much of the most hilariously inept and amateurish verse being written is perfectly intelligible. What I am asserting is that although clarity is by no means a sufficient condition for successful poetry, it is, in all but the rarest of cases, a necessary one. And yet for certain poets and critics of our time, as I have been at pains to point out, obscurity is an overriding virtue. What kind of poetry is it, then, that they want? What might it look and sound like? In the texts I have been examining, the most explicit answer to that question comes from Reginald Shepherd, the third Boston Review correspondent who, implicitly at least, can find little merit in a poetry that is coherently engaged in the world beyond language. Shepherd, like Marjorie Perloff, rejects any poetry that makes so much as a grain of sense, for such poetry, according to him, refuses to “honor language,” something that is done, apparently, by treating it as an end in itself. Shepherd wants a poetry of “strangeness and opacity,” one that exhibits a “resistance to communication… which restores language to itself,” criteria with which Perloff would surely agree.
Understandably, Shepherd is reticent to attack Adrienne Rich’s anthology because it contains one of his own poems, so his example of what poetry should not be is drawn instead from Bloom’s Best of the Best. He faults Bloom for canonizing Amy Clampitt, whom he characterizes as an erudite and amiable writer, but one “for whom language has no independent existence: she has something of greater or lesser interest to ‘say’ and she says it more or less well. But poetry is not versified thought… nor is it amiable or well mannered.” In reiterating the aesthetic stance of the Language Poets, it seems curiously off-point for Shepherd to single out Amy Clampitt rather than a less exuberant poet. Surely one hopes there was a reason for his choice beyond the cute pun on her name, just the sort of sophomoric “word-play” that postmodernists are often unembarrasedly given to. But Shepherd could not have chosen a more inappropriate example, for there are few contemporaries who seemed as utterly in love with the succulence of words, the intoxicating pleasures of language. If anyone of our era ought by rights to have been characterized as a poet who was language-centered, it is surely Amy Clampitt, a poet who manages to be wildly intoxicating with her language while remaining perfectly intelligible. This is how “My Cousin Muriel,” a poem about her dying cousin that Bloom wisely chose to use for The Best of the Best, begins:
“From Manhattan, a glittering shambles
of enthrallments and futilities, of leapers
in leotards, scissoring vortices blurred,
this spring evening, by the punto in aria
of hybrid pear trees in bloom (no troublesome
fruit to follow) my own eyes are drawn to–
childless spinner of metaphor, in touch
by way of switchboard and satellite, for
the last time ever, with my cousin Muriel…”
But this sort of delicious and truly language-centered writing makes far too much sense for Reginald Shepherd, who tells us in his essay that poetry ought to be an escape from meaning. Shepherd concludes his brief essay with four lines from a contemporary poem that he admires “because something is happening in them that happens nowhere else.” This is his exemplary excerpt:
“Vagrant, back, my scrutinies
The candid deformations as with use
A coat or trousers of one dead
Or as habit smacks of certitude.”
In the presence of such writing it is difficult to know what to say. Surely in the prison house of language, poets writing in this manner have opted for solitary confinement. If one is going to “escape from meaning” and foreground other qualities, one would imagine that either music, striking linguistic and figurative invention, or deft and original phrasing would be evident. If one is going to be excruciatingly difficult or downright incomprehensible, we need in compensation other virtues. One needs, at the very least, the intensity and profound musical and linguistic skill of authentic poetic composition. One thinks of the evocative, heartbreaking music of Hart Crane, or the coryambic and often rigorously measured verse of Dylan Thomas, or the syntactically wrenched and passionate strangeness of Vallejo, or the hypnogogic dream-swirling Dionysian difficulties of Hopkins or Berryman or Rimbaud or Cesaire, or of Robert Lowell’s early work with its headlong velocity and gorgeously gnarled intensities, or of the strange, disquieting magic we encounter in someone like Antonin Artaud, for whom surrealism was not so much a novel technique as a desperate means of plumbing his tormented depths. “Resistance to communication” the passage Reginald Shepherd has quoted certainly exhibits. But flattened of affect and bereft of music, this kind of silliness doesn’t even have the virtue, any longer, of novelty. That such lines restore language to itself seems questionable–to put it mildly. Given that the defining property of language is communicability, shouldn’t this sort of thing be called “Anti-Language Poetry”?
Although poetry often attempts to transcend the limits of language, in an attempt to invent such an idiom legions of twentieth-century poets have mistaken mystification for mystery. The real mystery of poetry is that it inexplicably opens the reader to that which is all but inexpressible. It is as though one had used a ladder to climb onto a roof with a spectacular view and then discovered that the ladder upon which one had climbed does not, in fact, exist–to use Ludwig Wittgenstein’s provocative metaphor. But mystification, whether of the modernist or post-structuralist variety, is simply the pretense of having climbed anywhere. Poetry, when it is at its most ineffable, transports us to places we had no reason to believe language could take us. What is needed for this task is the most luminous vision, the most receptive spirit and the most crystalline possible clarity of presentation. Our period’s infatuation with the opaque has been, in the end, a seriously misdirected effort. The most eloquent response to that wrong turning was made by Robinson Jeffers more than seventy years ago, when the modernist agenda had hardly begun and long before its eccentric notions had come to dominate aesthetic discourse. Prescient as ever, Jeffers wrote in the introduction to his 1938 Random House Selected Poetry:
“Long ago, before anything included here was written, it became evident to me that poetry–if it was to survive at all–must reclaim some of the power and reality that it was so hastily surrendering to prose. The modern French poetry of that time, and the most “modern” of the English poetry, seemed to me thoroughly defeatist, as if poetry were in terror of prose, and desperately trying to save its soul from the victor by giving up its body. It was becoming slight and fantastic, abstract, unreal, eccentric; and was not even saving its soul, for these are generally anti-poetic qualities. It must reclaim substance and sense, and physical and psychological reality…. Another formative principle came to me from a phrase of Nietzsche’s: “The poets? The poets lie too much.” I was nineteen when the phrase stuck in my mind; a dozen years passed before it worked effectively, and I decided not to tell lies in verse. Not to feign any emotion that I did not feel; not to pretend to believe in optimism or pessimism, or unreversible progress, not to say anything because it was popular, or generally accepted, or fashionable in intellectual circles, unless I myself believed it; and not to believe easily. These negatives limit the field; I am not recommending them but for my own occasions.”
Let us, by all means, have a poetry of the most incandescent verbal pyrotechnics, of the most restlessly experimental and original design. Let us have poems that astonish the reader at every turn. Let our poets attend to making it new with nearly as much fervor as they attend to making it true. But on those occasions when we fail to communicate, let us no longer imagine we have succeeded at something larger and grander. Let us not blame our failures on the intellectual poverty of our readers, or on their inability to register complex ambiguities, or on their irritable reaching after fact, or on the ineptitude of their teachers, or on the seductions of the media, or on crass materialism, or on the philistine vulgarity of our culture, or on–well, whatever else seems convenient to blame for our own failures. Let us no longer be gulled into imagining that rhetorical sophistication and verbal panache in the absence of genuine, communicated perception can create a poetry that is genuinely complex, textured, multilayered, exploratory, intuitive and profoundly insightful, a poetry worth careful study. They create, rather, poems that are hardly worth reading through once. Harold Bloom notwithstanding, our situation demands aesthetic and cognitive clarity.
“They have the numbers, we the heights” is the heroic epigraph Bloom uses for his dyspeptic rant against those who would open the doors of what he calls our “elitist art” and let in some air. They are words attributed by Thucydides to the Spartan commander at Thermopylae. No doubt Bloom, our self-appointed Keeper of the Canon, imagines himself the heroic captain of the last small band of stalwart Western aesthetes, holding the gates of the Temple of Art against the raucous assaults of the parti-colored resenters, the Great Unwashed. But the very mean-spiritedness of his attack belies the pretense that he represents some nobler and higher ground. The only heights that the defenders of the aesthetic of difficulty have to offer us are the heights of arrogance, exclusivity, and self-aggrandizement, and the only effect of composing one’s poetry from such heights is to insure that it remain chilly, windy, and unlikely to be heard.
Steve Kowit lives in Potrero, California. His handbook for writing poetry, In the Palm of Your Hand, is widely used. His most recent collections are The Gods of Rapture (City Works Press, 2006) and The First Noble Truth (U Tampa Press, 2007).