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


Haida oral poetry – talk at RFH

I went today to a talk with Margaret Atwood and Robert Bringhurst about his translations of Haida oral literature.

‘Oral literature’ is technically an oxymoron, I guess.

The Haida, btw, were a Native American people living on islands in the Pacific Northwest – off the coast of what’s now British Columbia. The subject matter itself was interesting – insights into the Haida culture and all that. I think I’ll probably order the man’s book, although annoyingly it looks like I’ll have to order it second hand from the States. But I got thinking about more technical aspects of oral ‘writing’.

First thing: each rendition of these stories would be different, of course. We tend to talk about that, though, almost as a by-product or an inconvenience resulting from the medium. But probably it was regarded as a good thing, and a storyteller who could retell a story in a fresh way would be valued, just as we value stand-up comedians like Eddie Izzard or Billy Connolly. Taking that thought further, it would be great if you could pick up a favourite novel – Pride and Prejudice or whatever – and it was slightly different from last time you read it. The characters would be the same, and the plot would be the same, but some scenes would be expanded or contracted; the enmphasis could be different, the dialogue could be different. The possibilities would be endless; yet it would still be the same novel. Perhaps sometimes you’d feel disappointed that a particular aspect was lost from last time you read it; but perhaps there’d be some brilliant vignette that was new.

Second thought: An oral culture would be one circumstance where the idea of memetics might be somewhat rewarding. I’m persuaded that the gene/meme parallel is an accurate one, on a very reductive level. But most practical examples seem uninformative, because they tend to be reduced to such a simplified model – the spread of a meme in the blogosphere or whatever. Part of the reason that our culture is not very usefully compared to biological evolution is perhaps the ability to store and share information exactly, so ideas and texts rapidly reach a stasis in the way they’re presented and spread extremely rapidly, so cultural evolution tends to move in jumps and continuity is lost. An oral storytelling culture – assuming that one still existed and the ability to record and exmine the output was there – would act in a way rather closer to genetic evolution. Continual semi-random incremental changes when a storyteller retells a story, other types of changes when someone tells a story they learnt from another – the possibility of tracking change would be stronger. Would it actually tell you anything profound about people or poetry (or biological evolution) that common sense doesn’t? Probably not.

It’s a pity that storytelling has lost its audience. Yes, we can read now, but there must be virtues in an unscripted (if not unplanned) oral performance that we could learn from. And theatres are suitable venues. Hell, we could buy performances on DVD, although that would tend to reinforce the idea of a definitive performance and drain the spontaneity out of the exercise.

An interesting thing he said. He’d already said that these stories – some of which are epic in length; he mentioned an eight-hour performance – were not metrical, and someone asked why he called them poetry. I was expecting him to come up with some kind of answer about compression or sonic qualities – one of the things we grasp at when trying to justify free verse as poetry. In fact, though, he said that they were structured more like European classical music; that the structuring wasn’t clear on a line-by-line basis, or even from reading a whole poem, but that when you’d read enough examples, the common structure became apparent. So if you just listened to one Beethoven symphony, it might not be clear what made it a symphony; but if you listen to a lot of Beethoven symphonies and compare them to Haydn and Mozart, you can start to understand the similarities. He described the structure as ‘fractal’ – typically five broad divisions (movements? acts? fitts?), each divided into five shorter episodes, further divided into five sub-episodes, and so on. He also mentioned the use of repeated themes and motifs in a way similar to music. I’m always a bit sceptical about poetry/music comparisons (or poetry/painting, music/painting, whatever), because such different media don’t seem to offer much scope for genuine comparison. And because the examples people come up with are so often flaky. He sounded pretty convincing, though.



the Turner Prize and Gwen/Augustus John

I went to the Tate to see the Turner Prize exhibition and the Gwen John and Augustus John.

I thought the Turner Prize was a distinct step up from last year; but then last year I thought two of the four artists on display were complete duds.

I always think it’s a pity that most of the TP press coverage is of the Daily Mail outraged-of-Tumbridge-Wells kind, always asking ‘is it really art?’. Because that’s a stupid philistine question, and one that naturally provokes an outraged defence of the TP from right-thinking people like me who believe that to write off the Turnmer Prize entries is to write off most of modernism in art – and that would be a pity. Whereas the TP is crying out for a more subtle and interesting public debate; including the point that many of the entries are just crap.

The one that most annoyed me last year was the video of a man running over a bridge in Belfast, cut together so that he ran and ran and ran and never reached the end. The particular bridge used is one that joins Catholic and Protestant areas. But the image of someone running and running and never getting anywhere is a huge filmic clich



Ah, did you once see Shelley plain,
And did he stop and speak to you?
And did you speak to him again?
How strange it seems, and new!

But you were living before that,
And you are living after,
And the memory I started at

Culture Nature

The Darkling Thrush

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fevourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.