Last time we looked at a possible way to start reading poetry. I suggested maybe choosing poems that seem more accessible, but what about the ones that get labeled inaccessible? Today we’re going to think about difficult poems and why they’re important.
So you’ve got a poem in front of you. You’ve been staring at it so long that your hand is starting to cramp from holding the page down. It starts off in a dead language, and then when you get some English, the syntax is so distorted that it might as well not be. Nouns are verbing and verbs are nouning and then words that you’re pretty sure aren’t English are treated like they are. And then! Then! Odysseus shows up or Aeneas or Orpheus and has the moxie to say something as though you’ve met him before and know all about his background.
What are you supposed to do with THAT?
Let go of the page, take a break and think about it this way: Difficult poems are an invitation. But to what?
Here are a few different ways this pans out.
The Rallentando Effect
We read everything so quickly now, from tweets to listicles to headlines. We’re all pretty adept at scanning text for information. But poetry isn’t about information.
Difficult poems remind us of this when they slow us down. They can’t be reduced to information because the person who wrote them can’t and you as the reader can’t either.
In his essay, On Difficulty, George Steiner borrows an idea from music theory and applies it to poems that slow us down:
The underlying manoeuvre is one of rallentando. We are not meant to understand easily and quickly. Immediate purchase is denied us. The text yields its force and singularity of being only gradually. In certain fascinating cases, our understanding, however strenuously won, is to remain provisional. There is to be an undecidability at the heart, at what Coleridge called the inner penetralium of the poem.
So next time you’re puzzled by a poem that may mean you’re on the right track. Some poems can’t be understood on the first reading, let alone completely mined.
The Poet Respects You
When accused of writing difficult poetry, the English poet, Geoffrey Hill, responded that it all boiled down to respecting the reader:
So when Odysseus or Aeneas show up, it’s actually a good sign that the poet respects you. Or in the world of prose, as crazy as it sounds, when Jonathan Swift in “A Modest Proposal” tries to convince you to cook and eat Irish babies, that’s actually a wonderful sign that he respects you so much to trust that you would never do such a thing.
In my view, difficult poetry is the most democratic, because you are doing your audience the honour of supposing that they are intelligent human beings. So much of the populist poetry of today treats people as if they were fools. And that particular aspect, and the aspect of the forgetting of a tradition, go together.
Allusions and irony and satire and all the things authors do to add layers to their writing increase intimacy with the reader through mutual respect.
The Nature of Poetry
It could be that the poem is slowing you down to focus on something important. Or it could be that the poet is showing you respect as the reader. At bottom, it could be a unique aspect of poetry that necessarily requires re-readings beyond the choice of the author to respect the reader. As William Stafford put it “poetry is language at its most intense and potentially fulfilling.”
This blog post needs just one reading. Maybe it just needs to be skimmed. A novel can be read once a year every year for life (LOTR for instance) but you can still say you’ve read it if only once as a teenager. But if you’ve read a poem only once then you haven’t really read it. Poems require multiple readings because the language is so dense, each word is doing so much. Novels and short stories, especially the good ones, can share in this same experience, but it’s a principal feature of poetry. That’s the mystery of literature. Each re-reading brings out something new. Just maybe then, when you come across a difficult poem, that’s an invitation to come back to it again and again as little things about it start flaring up in front of you.
It’s like looking at the night sky. Just glance at it and go back into to the lamplit room and maybe you’ll have the impression that the sky is overcast. But stay out there and wait for your eyes to adjust and just maybe you’ll see a few more stars and the faint sliver of the moon.
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How I loved reading this post. As an English major who never put her degree to any use, I think nostalgically about the years that I spent learning about the lives of John Keats, Lord Byron,T.S. Eliot and Dorothy Parker while reading their poetry. When my children were babies I used to read to read them Byron poems – a memory that fills me with pleasure. But life has somehow been reduced to a force that is too easy to fall prey to – the religion of momentary distraction. How often the sum of my day amounts to reading a few sentences strung together here and there that barely require more time to digest than water. Thank you for this inspiring reminder that there is so much more.
Thank you for the kind words, Linda!
I think you’ve put your degree to the most important use by raising your children with poetry. What I do with students is completely secondary to that. And really, without that kind of foundation, there’s probably not much I can do.
My wife and I have been talking about putting together a book list for when we have kids. We’ve thought about George MacDonald stories and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s work. What would you suggest?
I loved reading this. I once wrote up a scheme of my “critical” and “visceral” responses to “The Emperor of Ice Cream” at different ages beginning with 14 when my basic response was what a wonderful concept What interesting words. Beyond that I could not go.
I am glad that I was a young “snob” determined to crack the code of literary greatness. I am glad that I read all of James Joyce’s ULYSSES the summer I was 16 because it got me started on the habit of not giving up on a text and returning to it frequently.
When you have children I hope that you begin quite early with nursery rhymes read as rhythmically and bumptiously as you can. And a book with good illustrations can enchant a child.
I wish you all the best in your Ph.D. studies!
Thank you! I can see how “The Emperor of Ice Cream” would reward rereadings. Having an interpretation journal is a great idea. I wish I had written down those things back then.
I haven’t gotten around to announcing it on the blog yet, but our daughter, Eleanor, will be born this February and we’re already doing womb reading to get story time into our schedule. I probably shouldn’t reveal this, but Eleanor is the real reason why I’m developing a class on fairy tales for next year.
Any suggestions for enchanting children’s books?
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