Saturday, 12 September 1998

Not so Difficult Poems

First there is a mountain
then there is no mountain
then there is.

An academic criticised this as being at best nonsense. In fact it's a reference to an old Chinese text (by Lao Tzu?), pointing out that if you analyse something, you may lose sight of the original object, but later, the object returns richer than before. However, what the text doesn't point out is that before you study a piece you need to realise it is difficult and that it's worth the effort. The critic found these words from a Donovan song difficult because they're deceptive - neither the context nor the content give the readers any hint that work is required. This demonstrates one of the many types of difficulty prevalent today, but not the most difficult to deal with. It's just a matter of finding the "missing key".


Why are there more difficult poems around nowadays? There are many legitimate reasons

  • There's an increasing use of irony, collage and fragmentation, not just in poetry but in all the arts. Art reflecting life?
  • Poets are trying to move poetry away from prose and pop-songs.
  • Allusions are less likely to be understood (they're drawn from more domains, and readers no longer know the Bible and Shakepeare).
  • More "subjects" are dealt with, and there are more ways of dealing with them. Maybe the work is unclear because the subject is unclear - its an accurate image of a fuzzy scene.
  • Readers have come to expect certain things from "Poetry" (the meaning of life or least a summarisable meaning) and when they can't find it, they think they've "missed" something.
  • Poets are writing for fellow poets (there are lots of them around!) rather than the public at large and assume that the reader knows about poetry.
  • Poets are writing for the academics who think that "If it's easy, it's not poetry". If all poetry were easy, many academics would be out of a job.
  • Poets think that it's good for the reader to have to spend more time with a poem.

Or maybe there's more self-indulgent and badly-written poetry around nowadays.

The readers' perspective

As the original example shows, readers can make a poem difficult by lacking the necessary knowledge or approaching it in an inappropriate way.

  • Knowledge - The idea of introducing intellectual material into a poem is hardly new - John Donne did it, and Darwin's father (along with many others of the time) chose verse as the medium for expressing scientific concepts. But the rise of the short lyric poem has suppressed these other kinds of verse, so we're not used to poems that draw on many other domains of knowledge. Nowadays there are more specialist areas of knowledge, not least of which the area of literary theory, but I think that as long as the poem makes clear the kind of knowledge necessary, it can't really be considered difficult.
    I try to read poetry with my various faculties engaged - heart, ear and mind together. I think reading with the heart first and the mind later is like having a joke explained to you after you've missed the point - the joke might seem clever but ineffective.
  • Aesthetics - Some poetry is difficult because it depends on the reader appreciating different types of poetry. It's possible to develop an interest in new styles, but it takes time, and it isn't always easy.
    I try to familiarise myself with various types of poetry, but there are some types that I don't have much time for (the same applies to various modern art movements). In practise I sometimes dismiss a poem merely because of its genre; being good of its type isn't enough to make it good.

I'm often suspicious of difficult poetry. I think some of it masks banality, or is used to make the poets look deeper or cleverer than they are (see "The Poetry Circus" for much more about this "Emperor's New Clothes" angle on modern poetry). I distrust people who write difficult poetry if they also have trouble writing simply about simple things. Some people have communication problems (which sometimes is the very reason they turn to writing poetry).

I've also grown to be suspicious of simple poetry! Keats' "Truth is beauty, beauty truth; that is all ye know in life, and all ye need to know." has been used as an example of simple, powerful poetry. But I'm told that if you read his letters it's easy to believe that Keats was being ironic. He certainly knew that some of his contemporaries would have interpreted it as such.

The writers' perspective

How should you present a difficult poem? Should you somehow warn readers what you expect? Should you use footnotes or explain allusions within the poem? What assumptions is it fair to make about the readers' knowledge? Should you try to add a more approachable aspect to your poem in order to win the readers' confidence, make them like (or at least want to re-read) the piece? Who are you writing for?

The answers to these questions depend to how reader-centred you are as a writer. My views are that

  • Too many concessions to the first-time reader can make poems verbose. I'm not going to put things like "Mars, the Roman god of war" in my poems.
  • When I've tried to be tactful by adding an easy plot/surface to a difficult poem, readers have sometimes assumed that there's nothing but the tactful part.
  • I think that any piece with enough contextual clues for the reader to "solve" the poem can't be considered obscure. I also think that it's reasonable to assume that readers of my poems will be familiar with various types of poems.


The Gaulling gowned Emperors of Lit Crit
Herd classed canonfodder by degrees o'er

It should be obvious to the reader that this poem is "intellectual". The poet has kindly dropped lots of hints about the section of the library the reader should go to.

Anagram Homage
Is a pen neutral? I
peer (Italian sun!)
at plain ruin, see
in alien pasture
a supernal tie-in.

Each line's an anagram of the poem's final line - "Pauline Stainer", a sometimes obscure poet! I think this is clever, and again the poet has helped the reader.

Word Games
When you understand that a river is a flower
You have begun. Friday, of course, is a man
(Implement satisfied consumer demand,
but not in time (3,4))

Once you grasp that the poem uses ideas from cryptic crosswords, this poem isn't difficult either.

After a short illness, a sudden thaw worse than a storm,
sonnets tumbling from the trees, spinning to slow their fall.

The formally indispensable hero survives,
sky's orchestration left to apprentices.

This one's more problematic. The sentences are well formed and the clauses each make sense, more or less, but what's it all about? What knowledge would help the reader understand it better? This poem requires a shift from mainstream aesthetic values.

The poems are by Tim Love, Bill Turner, U.A. Fanthorpe and Tim Love again.


  • "The Poetry Circus", Stanton A. Coblentz, Hawthorn Books, 1967
  • "Obscurity in Current Poetry", Eddie Wainwright, Envoi 112 (an attempt to separate out obscurity, difficulty and complexity)
  • Obscurity from Sol 30
  • "Benign Obscurity in Poetry", Donald Justice, New Criterion V15:6, Feb 1997, p.70-76.
  • "The Uses of Obscurity", A. White, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981
  • "It Ain't Easy: Conformity, Culture and Complexity", Wayne Burrows, Thumbscrew 11, p.34.

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