Monday, May 14, 2007

Mark S. on Difficult Poetry

This contribution comes from fellow Mahwahvian Mark S. It's a good one:

In an article recently published in Slate, former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky takes issue with what he calls "the stupid and defeatist idea that poetry, especially modern or contemporary poetry, ought to be less 'difficult,'" arguing that difficulty constitutes a significant part of the pleasure which poetry brings, and citing a number of poems which illustrate this idea. I think he is a little bit right, but a little more wrong.

No doubt, the general decline in literacy in recent years has made comprehending the sophisticated structures of poetry increasingly difficult to the common reader. I wish I could find the precise statistic, but I remember reading somewhere that the length of the average English sentence has decreased 60% since the early twentieth century, and all one has to do is read the periodic sentences of Burke or Gibbon to see how much complexity the English language has lost over the years. I find even relatively simple works like the ballads of Wordsworth or the epigrams of Housman are equally impenetrable to my students as the grandest passage in Milton, so there is a serious case to be made that the contemporary reading public simply does not possess the necessary linguistic tools to appreciate fine poetry.

On the other hand, I think it is equally unquestionable that modern poetry can be characterized by a unique reliance on obscurity. Tolstoy was one of the first to call attention to this phenomenon, complaining that "haziness, mysteriousness, obscurity, and exclusiveness...(are) elevated to the rank of a merit and a condition of poetic art" and that "obscurity (is) elevated into a dogma among the new poets." And since obscurity remains a common feature of poetry right up to our time, the modern reader also has a case to make against the difficulty of contemporary poetry.

It might be helpful to distinguish between two types of obscurity in poetry, what might be called verbal obscurity and conceptual obscurity. Verbal obscurity might be defined as a lack of clarity caused by an intricate syntactical structure or exotic diction. So for instance, an example of verbal obscurity would be the following lines from Shelley: "there are spread / On the blue surface of thine aery surge,/ Like the bright hair uplifted from the head / Of some fierce Maenad, even from the dim verge / Of the horizon to the zenith's height / The locks of the approaching storm." Here, the subject and verb are separated by five lines of phrases, and the image of the Maenad is, at least to the modern reader, not immediately recognizable. On the other hand, conceptual obscurity might be defined as a lack of clarity resulting from the indecipherability of a line's reference, such as Eliot's "behaving as the wind behaves / no nearer" or Dylan Thomas' "I must enter again the round / Zion of the water bead / And the synagogue of the ear of corn." Here, I would contend, even once we recognize the syntactical structure of the line and the significance of individual words, the proposition of the sentence has no real reference to the world of objects or ideas, or, perhaps more precisely, the sentence makes no real proposition.

Both types of obscurity may be vicious, but, to my mind, conceptual obscurity is always so; verbal obscurity can sometimes accompany real technical virtuosity and so be conducive to artistic pleasure in the way that Pinsky asserts. The difficulty that results from verbal obscurity may be fairly said, at least on occasion, to be the responsibility of the reader, but the difficulty that results from conceptual obscurity is generally the fault of the poet. And since it's practice has relied so heavily on conceptual obscurity, the serious reader does have a legitimate complaint to make against modern poetry.

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