Arduity:Clarifying difficult poetry.
Difficult poetry, why bother?
Incomprehensible, wilfully obscure, elitist, self-indulgent, self-regarding, hopeless, not 'proper' poetry. These are just some of the terms used to describe difficult verse and yet this material is rich, complex and deadly serious. Bothering about difficult poetry means taking a little more time than usual to work out the complexities and allowing yourself to be changed (for the better) in the process.
This is not to say that all poetry that is hard to grasp is good poetry, in fact much of this material is really quite dire because it tries too hard to be clever / erudite / profound and ends up not being worth the bother. However, the poets and poems on these pages are shining examples of the opposite tendency, motivated by the need to say challenging and sometimes contradictory things without losing the integrity of the message / theme and without patronising the reader.
Of course, some of our very best poets are primarily depicted as difficult or obscure rather than good. Discussion of the work of Geoffrey Hill or J H Prynne will usually mention difficulty and/or obscurity in the first paragraph as if this is an altogether negative trait.
There's also the argument that life really is too short to pay prolonged attention to poems that turn out to be not very good. I think I would argue that paying serious and sustained attention to a poem is a rewarding activity in itself even if you decide that you don't like the poem.
I know from personal experience that intelligent readers can feel incredibly intimidated by obscure words, foreign phrases, unattributed quotations and allusions that caan best be described as 'arcane'. This is especially the case when the academic explanations are more complex and obfuscatory than the poem itself. I'm not claiming that this site will bring sudden clarity to this material but I do hope that it will go some way to reduce that feeling of alienation that many of us have experienced.
The charge of obscurity did have some weight until the internet got into its stride- now even the most esoteric of references or allusions can usually be worked through fairly rapidly with the assistance of Google and the growing number of online literary resources and archives.
The motivation behind putting this material together arose from my own experience of attempting to grapple with the work of Hill, Prynne or Paul Cealn and being frustrated by the overly refined and academic jargon in which these works are discussed. The intention is to provide others with a readable series of articles that try hard for clarity without undue simplification.
The Difficulty Toolkit.
Many readers of poetry feel intimidated by the words and references used in difficult verse. This site aims to remove that sense of exclusion and open up difficult or innovative poems to a wider audience.Our Difficulty toolkit section contains articles which identify and describe the various strategies that readers may use to broaden their understanding and overcome that sense of exclusion.
The toolkit consists of topics that I have found to be helpful and I readily accept that these are subjective. I would therefore welcome suggestions from site users as to subjects or areas that I may have missed.
We also have articles on poets who have a reputation for difficult work. These include Paul Celan, Geoffrey Hill, J H Prynne, and David Jones, all of whom have produced work that demands and rewards attention from the reader. From the other side of the Atlantic we have articles on Wallace Stevens, Charles Olson, John Matthias, and Geraldine Kim. All of these sections need to be expanded upon and we would welcome contributions from other interested readers.
Bebrowed- the site blog
This contains over 200 posts on related subjects and provides more personal perspective on the poets featured here. Recent posts include:
We're very keen on user contributions because we see this as an important counterweight to material produced by academics. If you have strong views on any 'difficult' poem or poet then we'd be more than happy to publish them.This is an essential part of this project as too often readers who are interested in the work are deterred by the dense and complex comentaries from the academy. As of Jan 2011, we have two articles by contributors- on Wallace Stevens' 'The Rock' by Jim Kleinhenz and on Gerladine Kim's 'Povel' by Vance Maverick.
The rewards of difficulty.
Although difficult poetry is controversial, the fact remains that our finest poets (Geoffrey Hill, J H Prynne, John Ashbery) continue to write poems that aren't readily accessible and require attentive reading. Paul Celan is generally acclaimed as the finest poet since the Second World War yet his work is soaked through with ambiguity and cryptic allusion.
Paying attention to this kind of work is immensely rewarding and has the potential to change the way we think about language and the world in general. Difficult verse requires concentration and a readiness to find things out but we hope that this site will demonstrate why the effort is worthwhile.
The difficulty manifesto
Difficulty in poetry has a bad reputation in the Anglo Saxon world because we're attracted to a 'common sense' view of the world and because we have a clear idea of what the arts should do. Novels and plays should tell stories, poems should express emotions, paintings and sculpture should depict things, pieces of music should have a recognisable melody.
Whilst we don't wish to denigrate this view, we do feel that there is a place for creative expression that requires some thought and that 'difficult' works have a greater degree of power and depth than most of those that are more readily accepted.
One of the main problems with difficulty is its relationship to theory and the academy. Academics have latched on to difficult artists and writers and subjected their works to the closest critical scrutiny. Because this scrutiny is often expressed in obscure or technical terms, important but difficult works are 'fenced off' from ordinary people.
We're committed to taking difficulty out of the academy and putting it back in the social world.