Adorning the Rock (1)

Great Poetry is Difficult Poetry, but…

Donald Hall goes right to the point: I see no reason to spend your life writing poems unless your goal is to write great poems. Steven Spender is equally succinct: I think continually of those who were truly great./ Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history.

It seems an unimpeachable point. Maybe we could quibble over this ‘soul’s history’ stuff, but who wants to write a mediocre poem? Who, indeed, takes pencil and paper in hand with the intention of writing something merely passable? No one’s forcing you to do this, pal. You can be a commonplace anything. Why write poetry?  You’d be better off practicing guitar chords or working on your jump shot.

I won’t get cute here. We all know the evil answer to this question lurks in Hall’s ‘your goal’.  We all know there is a great gulf between trying to write a great poem and writing a great poem.

Substitute the word ‘difficult’ for ‘great’ in both Donald Hall’s and Steven Spender’s sentences and you will find an interesting shift in meaning. Let’s face it, if you go through life aspiring to be difficult, all you accomplish is that you’ll stop getting invited to parties. As a goal for your poems, being merely difficult does not seem sufficient—whereas being great does. Still, we do think a great poem is a difficult poem, do we not? Difficulty suggests complexity of vision, insightfulness, a penetration of subject matter, an attempt to wring something from our quotidian lives that makes those lives worth living. A difficult poem attempts to tell us something we don’t want to hear. A difficult poem at least has the potential to be great that an ‘easy’ poem does not. Name one poem that’s great and easy. While they are clearly not identical, if we are going to understand the great poem there is a good chance we are going to have to get there through the door of the difficult poem. Besides, anybody can write a difficult poem.

Why are you doing this to yourself?

I have a non-poetry example. I just saw the movie, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Directed by Julian Schnabel, it throws you into the life of Jean-Dominique Bauby, who as the result of a stroke is ‘locked-in’ to a nearly immobile body. His thoughts are said to be unimpeded, but his functioning body has been reduced to one eye. He can blink. This is how he communicates. A great deal of the film places you behind that eye. We are privy to his thoughts—the mind-body problem in extremis—we see the world as it seems to that one trapped eye. It is a harrowing movie. It may qualify as a great one. I certainly found it difficult to watch. Now, here’s the thing. Pretty much everybody I talked to had the same question—indeed, the film asks it  of itself— Why did you want to see this film? Why are you doing this to yourself? What is gained by subjecting yourself to this drama?

My answer: A terrible beauty is born.

I wonder at the source of this beauty; it is unmistakably there.

Death is the Mother of Beauty

Though he will break it to us gently, Wallace Stevens has something difficult to tell us. The world is a beautiful place, yes…

Deer walk on our mountains, and the quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness…


…in the isolation of the sky,
at evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
ambiguous undulations

There is something alien in that beauty—ambiguous, isolated—something not human. Oh, and by the way, death is the mother of beauty—how about that?

Published by extrasimile

define: extra: excess, more than is needed, required or desired; something additional of the same kind. define: simile: a simile is a type of figurative language, language that does not mean exactly what it says, that makes a comparison between two otherwise unalike objects or ideas by connecting them with the words “like” or “as.” The reader can see a similar connection with the verbs resemble, compare and liken. Similes allow an author to emphasize a certain characteristic of an object by comparing that object to an unrelated object that is an example of that characteristic. define: extra: an minor actor in a crowd scene

3 thoughts on “Adorning the Rock (1)

  1. John–
    Yes, the whole honesty/ dishonesty aspect to the difficult poem is something that needs addressing. I have a long standing debate going with a friend of mine as to whether one knows when one is doing something wrong. His position is that—on some level—you know; I argue that, while clearly it is possible to do something wrong consciously, at base, you tend to make explanations/ justifications for what you do. You simply don’t know. Of course there is the problem as to the non-objective nature of words like ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, but even in egregious situations—good Germans going off to murder Jews all day; good Catholics finding it reasonable to burn someone to death in order to save his soul—where there really isn’t an question that what was going on was wrong, people seem not to know.
    So one’s knowledge of one’s honesty over an extremely complex activity is problematic in my mind. Would you know if you were being honest while writing your poem? And your criticism of someone else’s honesty, would you know if it was honest?
    Of course, you’re quite right. Something—especially something that’s complex—that’s not honest seems not worth bothering over. Honesty might mark one of the activities that distinguish the great work of art from the merely manipulative.
    So…is it just a case of A being a little more insightful as to his motivations than B is, or is there some honest ground one can get to? If there is, I don’t seem to be able to find it with my feet.
    By the way, that poem by Celan… Is ‘Vitebsk’ its name?
    By the way, the poem I wrote while I was in Chicago(really) ‘Chicago Scattered’ is sort of about this issue.We are talking about something that is an honest reflection of some aspect of the world, are we not?

  2. Jim,

    Some difficult poems are also dishonest poems. The Four Quartets has some great lines and some suitably gnomic/difficult phrases but at the end of the day it is fundamentally empty- more about the display of skill than any depth of meaning or feeling.
    With regard to death and beauty, there’s a beautiful poem by Celan which is both lyrical and complex yet it contains the name ‘Vitebsk’ which is where the Nazis buried children alive.

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