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
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?