The easy and the difficult complement each other.
1. Sí, “Mister” Ashbery
Now, I know John Ashbery is a poet who inspires strong feelings — as poets should. Some critics insist he is our greatest living poet, while others denounce him as a tone-deaf, pretentious fraud. I think it’s obvious that the snipers are just jealous. He’s a big target. And sadly, all too many people don’t know how to read a John Ashbery poem — or any poem, for that matter. American poetry is more than Billy Collins and Ted Kooser, folks. For example, there’s Ron Silliman.
It’s easy to read John Ashbery as if he weren’t difficult and deserving of a more practiced form of attention, like cleaning under one’s fingernails and mistaking them for moons, or perhaps vice versa. We’ve been so moonstruck by the romantic figure of the poet, we forget that when he points at the moon, his other three fingers are pointing back at himself, and not necessarily like Narcissus — which would make it a myth demeanor — assuming he (or she) doesn’t point with, say, pursed lips, as they do in some parts of the world, a sideways shake of the head, or a suggestive motion of the penis gourd. But I think if you put in the effort that any difficult poem requires, you’ll begin to see, beneath the “free-flowing, often disjunctive syntax, extensive linguistic play, often infused with considerable humor, and a prosaic, sometimes disarmingly flat or parodic tone” (Wikipedia), whole new vistas of, you know, deep poet stuff. Also, it really helps if you read all his poems in a Krusty the Clown voice.
2. Shepherd: “death is contagious”
Of course, it’s all too easy to make fun of what we don’t understand. Poet and new blogger Reginald Shepherd has a very thought-provoking post on difficult poetry, supporting his argument with an array of great quotes and assertions. One commenter wonders why Shepherd doesn’t include any examples from actual poems, but the result of that omission is an essay I had no trouble reading as a vindication of my own views. Here are two snippets:
Incomprehension and even frustration can seduce in poems just as they can in people: many objects of desire are obscure, but their outlines are clear. What does the sunlight breaking through the clouds that have hovered all day, then filtering through the leaves of the giant live oak tree in my back yard, “mean”? It is, I saw it, I felt in on my skin. You can see something too, feel that slight difference in the temperature when you step out from under that tree, your feet sinking a little into the thick layer of leaf litter. Too many bad poems, dull poems, are just meaning, with nothing or too little doing the meaning. I know what they mean, but I can’t be bothered to care. As Charles Bernstein notes, some poems are easy because they have nothing to say. Conversely, some poems are difficult for the same reason, in an attempt to cover up their vacuity.
A destination is also an end, but as Nietzsche wrote, the end of a melody isn’t its goal. Too often understanding is the prize you get after you’ve consumed the poem. Now that you’ve taken it apart to get the decoder ring, you’re done with the poem, you can throw it away. I don’t see poems as things I want to get over with, any more than I see life as something I want to get over with. The end of life is death, and we start dying from the minute we’re born. But on the road to the contagious hospital there are muddy fields full of new growth if we just take the time to look closely. We’ll get down that road soon enough. Death is contagious, people are always catching it; the time we don’t take will be taken from us. There’s no need to hurry oneself along.
3. An Angel named Ralph
Difficult poets don’t help their case any if they can’t read their stuff in public, by which I mean introducing some inflection and moving one’s body once in a while. The other week I went to hear Ralph Angel at Altoona College, and had a hard time staying in my seat — and not because he was that funky. I wanted to climb up on stage, elbow him out of the way, and read his poems myself. I could tell they were good. Difficult, yes, but in a way I happen to like. Intriguing shapes kept emerging from the quiet, halting, expressionless fog of his reading, only to recede again before I could get a clear idea of them. “In our white and blue city, everything smells like a story,” I heard. Well, I think some of us were getting a whiff of connectivity, too — but only a whiff. From the next poem, I got: “What I am trying to say makes faint scratching sounds on the paper.” Ah. So this reading style is a deliberate affectation, and not just the result of a lack of aptitude for public speaking? “You’re transparent in the basement by way of all exits.” Actually, we were on the ground floor, but otherwise, yes. The room was packed, and I imagine our collective bafflement was written on our faces.
Those were all last lines, identifiable as such by the longer-than-usual pause that followed, and then the brief return to a slightly more expressive voice indicating ordinary speech. During the fourth poem, I was able to extract a line from somewhere past the middle. “I write down everything as I forget it, especially at night,” Angel murmured. I liked the idea of writing as a process of forgetting. I put my notebook back in my pocket.
Afterwards, I bought copies of both his recent books — a volume of selected poems (Exceptions and Melancholies: Poems 1986-2006) and a translation of Lorca’s Poem of the Deep Song — largely to confirm my suspicion that he is, in fact, a very fine poet. But I don’t think my reaction was typical. The students, who had all dutifully signed in before the reading, stampeded out as soon as the question-and-answer period was over, with hardly a glance at the books. As far as I could tell, the only ones who bought Angel’s books were other poets. Maybe he doesn’t care about that, but I do. I want people to like good poetry, and it pains me every time I have to listen to a gifted poet who can’t read his or her own stuff. Doesn’t an MFA in poetry require credits in public speaking and performance? I’m not saying that all readings should be as dramatic as the average poetry slam — that’s like saying symphony orchestras should have light shows and stage diving. But poets should at least know how to engage an audience, I think. One of the Lorca poems Angel read was a translation of El Grito, “The Cry.” The word Ay! occurs three times in the poem; it’s an exciting piece. Let’s just say that it was not well served by murmuring.
The eclipse of a cry
echoes from mountain
From the olive trees
a black rainbow
veils the blue night.
In that video clip from The Simpsons I linked to above, I love it when Bart unmasks what he takes to be an imposter by pulling his fake nose off. “Krusty’s a real clown!” he tells his sister. “That’s just some lumpy old guy in a clown suit.” Pandemonium ensues, as pandemonium is wont to do.
That’s what a good poem should be like.
In a follow-up to the post quoted above, Reginald Shepherd has a very helpful ennumeration of the various ways in which a poem can be difficult. I encourage everyone with even a passing interest in this topic to go read it. I especially liked his conclusion: “Every reader encounters poetic difficulty of some kind at some point.”