The Books of My Numberless Dreams

On Difficult Poetry

Posted on: January 22, 2007

This bit on reading & writing deals with poetry. Reginald Shepherd blogged on the attraction of ‘difficult’ poetry and defines the what makes a poem ‘difficult’ as opposed to ‘obscure’. (The first isn’t always good, the latter never is.) The best parts of his post for me was when he described the allure and the challenge of works that the poet does not make immediately accessible. If I derive some kind of pleasure from what I’m reading then working it out only enhances that. Where is the fun in only enjoying things that are easy and “entertaining”?

 I don’t object to being baffled, though I may not wish to remain in bafflement indefinitely. Just as mystery can be part of a person’s allure, so mystery in poetry can be a lure. Yeats calls this “the fascination of what’s difficult.” One wants to solve the mystery, or at least better understand its source. Sometimes one discovers that the mystery isn’t to be solved, but still that process of exploration has helped one to know it better, to experience it more fully. (Superficial mystery is merely shallowness posing as depth.


Any good poem gives the reader something, what Allen Grossman calls the interest of the world: feelings, sensations, experiences. T.S. Eliot wrote that genuine poetry can communicate before it’s understood. I would say analogously that good poetry can and should give pleasure before it’s understood. It’s this pleasure that makes one want to understand the poem. Whether my poems are always immediately graspable in terms of subject matter, I’ve always tried to give the reader something, in terms of language, imagery, rhythm, etc., to make the poem a sensual experience. Understanding something can be a pleasurable experience (it can also be intensely painful), but in poetry as in life there are other pleasures than understanding. In Billy Collins’s words, “The grasping of a poem’s meaning, however provisional it may be, is only one of the many pleasures that poetry offers”

Now if only I were this articulate.

(via Reading Experience)


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