Posts Tagged ‘difficult poetry’

Adorning the Rock (1)

September 9, 2010

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…

But…

…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?

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Long and Hard

July 17, 2010

Start with a few titles: Albert Einstein’s The Meaning of Relativity, Paul Samuelson’s Foundations of Economic Analysis, Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s Beyond the Melting Pot, John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory. Have you read all these?    How about this group? Donald Mackenzie’s An Engine, Not a Camera: How Financial Models Shape Markets, John Seeley Brown and Paul Duguid’s The Social Life of Information, Henry Petroski’s Success Through Failure: The Paradox of Design, James R. Beniger’s The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society. Okay, then these: Noam Chomsky’s Language and Mind, Walter Jackson Bate’s Criticism: The Major Texts, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren’s Modern Rhetoric, Lewis A. Coser’s Masters of Sociological Thought, and Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity…

So, raise your hands, who’s read them all? Seventy-five percent? Fifty percent? Come on, anybody read one? Good, thank you. Me too—but I read it a long time ago, and well, I didn’t do it justice, which is seems fitting because I’m talking about the Rawls’ book. Lately, I’ve fingered it a few times in the book store—did you know there’re actually two editions, the one published in 1971 and a later edition—so it’s daunting, a long hard read and not immediately relevant to anything I’m doing right now, and, you know, do you have to read both volumes? Did John change his mind on some key points? Turns out, reading Rawls is just a start; as a citizen I should be reading at least some if not all of the above. Democracy demands it.

A book matches perfectly the ideal of reflection. The tougher the text, the more reflective we must be in absorbing it. This suggests the importance of reading books that are difficult. Long books. Hard books. Books with which we have to struggle. The hard work of serious reading mirrors the hard work of serious governing—and, in a democracy, governing is a responsibility all citizens share. And if we are willing to work our way through difficult texts, we are far more likely to be willing to work our way through our opponents’ difficult ideas. An important lesson of serious reading is that ideas need not be correct to be important.

This quote comes from Stephen Carter and the above list of books comes from Peter J. Dougherty and, to be fair, his reading list is only suggested reading. You can choose your own hard book to take to the beach this summer—just so long as it’s hard and it’s a book.

Kierkegaard has a passage somewhere in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript (no, I’m not going to try and find it) where he’s sitting in a café smoking a cigar and thinking about his particular place in the world. Everyone is busy explaining things, everyone is making things comprehensible, everyone is making things easy.  What was he to do with himself? He lights a second cigar (Sören, this is not good for you) and thinks that there is danger here: The danger of making things too easy, the danger of making things too readily comprehensible, of eliding past real difficulties and not dealing with the hard, harsh complex reality of things. Perhaps, he thinks, it is necessary to make things difficult again. Make things hard. Like Socrates.

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