difficulty in poetry

These are some thoughts in response to the current discussions in blogspace about ‘difficulty’ in poetry.

If you’re interested in creating a larger readership for poetry, difficulty is relative. In Don Paterson’s recent TS Eliot lecture, he fulminates about ‘postmoderns’ and various quotes from the lecture have been used to champion more accessible poetry. But if the missing consituency for poetry is represented by my mother (who doesn’t read poetry but does read novels and biographies) – well, she didn’t find the Paterson poems I showed her immediately accessible, any more than Josh Corey’s mother felt she understood his poetry. I think my mother’s hesitation was mainly because she doesn’t read poetry, so she didn’t feel confident in piecing together the meaning. But my point is, even a poem like The Thread, a rhyming, metrical poem on a conventional subject, requires a different kind of reading to a novel. A regular reader of poetry may fill in the gaps and see what the poem is saying relatively easily – but it’s not as straightforward as it might appear. So if your ambition is to seduce that constituency – readers who don’t read poetry – into buying contemporary poetry, perhaps Billy Collins (or someone equivalent) is what you need. At least he is identifiably writing literary poetry, unlike some high-profile ‘poets’, like Stepanek, Bukowski and Felix Dennis.

Another thought: one reason that people on either side of this debate talk across each other is a difference in the way they mean ‘difficulty’. If Mike Snider uses the term ‘difficult’, he perhaps means ‘wilfully unrewarding’ or even ‘unlikeable’. When Josh Corey uses it, he perhaps means ‘intellectually challenging’. To say you write poetry which is intellectually challenging is a boast; to say you write poetry which is wilfully unrewarding is not. There must be a better term to argue around than ‘difficulty’. I don’t have a suggestion.

I do have sympathy with Chris Lott’s point – basically, that he doesn’t find the so-called ‘difficult’ and ‘complex’ poems are actually complex or difficult – they just look like a mess. That reaction might mean you’re just missing something, but not always. In Matthew Caley’s recent Magma article on the ‘avant garde’ (their scare quotes), he describes an event he organised:

“During a recent stint as Poet-in-Residence at The Poetry Society Cafe I curated an exhibition