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Why is modern poetry so difficult?

This piece is 1,000 words or about 3 printed pages long. It was first published in the ‘Forum’ section of The Weekend Australian, 13 to 14 November 2004.


The other day a friend asked me why modern poetry is so difficult. Don’t you hate that? Of course it’s difficult, or you wouldn’t bother reading it.

The American poet Richard Hugo wrote ornate and sometimes cryptic verse, and he had a defence ready when people accused his poems of failing to communicate. ‘If you want to communicate,’ he’d say, ‘use the telephone.’

‘But poetry didn’t used to be difficult,’ my friend said, appealing to the widespread folk belief in a golden age when capitalism was kind to poor people, and poetry was easy to understand. I gave a hollow laugh, and reminded her of Auden’s 1939 epigram ‘Epitaph on a Tyrant’. It begins ‘Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after / And the poetry he invented was easy to understand...’

Poetry at its most concentrated deals with questions, not answers, and some of the questions it wrestles with are complex and painful. Why do I have to die? Why do my children have to die? What’s it all about? It’s no coincidence that poetry is called for at a wedding or a funeral, where simplistic answers are inappropriate.

Once, Shakespeare was considered barbaric and obscure. Try this, from Antony and Cleopatra: ‘O! Then we bring forth weeds / when our quick winds lie still, and our ills told us / Is as our earing.’ (‘Earing’ here means ‘ploughing’, but that doesn’t help.) These days Shakespeare is more widely performed than ever before, and his complex and often violent works are force-fed to schoolchildren.

The same process of rehabilitation has been applied to the Romantic poets. We forget how poor Wordsworth, when he was young, was savaged by a gang of critics for his obscurity. His friend Coleridge said that any poet worth his salt was about a dozen years ahead of his readers. But the readers caught up — Wordsworth lived on into a respectable old age and wrote respectable old poems; lots of them.

The same thing happened to T.S.Eliot, an American from St Louis who worked as a bank clerk in London and wore green eye-shadow. He complained that he and his arty friends were called literary bolsheviks and drunken helots (helots were the lowest class in ancient Sparta, a body of serfs who were bound to the land and were owned by the state), and the Manchester Guardian called his poem The Waste Land ‘so much waste-paper.’ Now he’s taught in schools to teenagers, a category of young persons that didn’t exist when the poems were written, and most people think The Waste Land is a piece of cake, though not everyone can spell the title correctly.

These days it’s the Cambridge don J H Prynne who waves the flag of obscurity in Britain. Here’s a sample, from the book Not-You: ‘lank laces ready numb / or to touch at a cute burr segment, able / grains prevail in their bonus tear-off coupon.’

London editor Robert Potts has said that Prynne’s poetry is regarded as ‘hermetic, baffling, difficult of access, uncertain of interpretation,’ and admits that for years he found Prynne’s poetry repellent, until ‘the work itself changed my mind.’ The critic John Sutherland suggested that ‘only four people... can understand him’. Yet he does have readers: when his selected poems were published a few years ago thousands of copies were sold, and the book was nominated for a New Yorker magazine book prize. And in China, a translation of his oblique booklet Pearls That Were has sold more than 50,000 copies.

I found Mr Prynne’s poetry baffling until I came across his book of poems The Oval Window some twenty years ago. It deals with hearing (the ‘oval window’ is part of the inner ear, and other organs in the inner ear give us our sense of balance) and offers complex vistas of history, culture, economics and society, viewed from a variety of conceptual windows.

A few years ago I heard Mr Prynne deliver a series of lectures on poetry in Cambridge, and I was impressed by his wide reading and the depth and clarity of his thinking. His poems have an even greater range of reference and are more concentrated and multi-layered than his lectures. I have to confess that most of them go right over my head. But what’s wrong with that? ‘A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what’s a heaven for?’ The notoriously obscure Robert Browning wrote that, in his poem ‘Andrea del Sarto’.

In the United States it’s the so-called ‘Language’ poets who enrage plain speakers. Here’s Ron Silliman, in his book Tjanting: ‘Applause curtains the drop. Me too in general yes. Back into stomach of the clock went the elf in lederhosen. Certain sentences set aside, others set off. Chiropractical. Dr Heckel and Mr Jive. Furnish fumes.’

And from Bruce Andrews’ book Lip Service: ‘false lick feint soft! fast! — / winking vinegar florid ever / dream clocks in at butter; ensign pariah physical slush / swine mutters, time out for tears’.

The ‘Language’ poets emerged in the aftermath of the anti-Vietnam war protests and the Nixon scandal in the early 1970s, and one of their number, the Californian poet Lyn Hejinian, explained to me that they developed their chopped-up, anti-poetic-personality approach to writing as a direct response to the corruption of public speech that marked that politically contaminated era. Whatever the faults of the school they helped to found, it’s worth considering that the best ‘Language’ writers — Hejinian, Andrews, Silliman, Barrett Watten and Charles Bernstein — are talented, innovative, productive, and quite different from one another.

Ironically what started out as a rebellion is now virtually the status quo. ‘Language’ poetry is thirty years old, and its radical poetic practices have been respectable for at least a decade.

Most literary movements expire after about twenty years: look at Romanticism, Symbolism, Imagism, confessional poetry... for that matter, look at the hula hoop, flared pants, and the Screwdriver. No young person these days would be caught dead ordering a Harvey Wallbanger or a Screwdriver, yet I can remember when the name ‘Harvey Wallbanger’ was as commonly met with as ‘Robert Lowell’.

Notice I haven’t mentioned Australia: no one in Cambridge or California is going to throw a fit because Australian poetry is too hard to understand, and that’s a relief.

John Tranter is the author of twenty volumes of verse and editor of four poetry anthologies. Issue 24 of his free Internet magazine Jacket features 200 pages of close analysis of the poems of J H Prynne.

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