The eclipse of a cry

The easy and the difficult complement each other.
–Daodejing

1. Sí­, “Mister” Ashbery

I have my browser home page set to Poetry Daily, and this morning I was greeted by a John Ashbery poem, Yes, “Señor” Fluffy.

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
to mountain.

From the olive trees
a black rainbow
veils the blue night.

Ay!

4. Imposture

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.

Update

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.”

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave’s writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the “share alike” provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

17 Comments


  1. I think that Spanish *Ay* can be hard for a non-native to pull off with any conviction, don’t you?

    I’m poetically illiterate – I like Kooser. I like that he makes me laugh; I like feeling that I know what he’s talking about.

    Those difficult poems leave me feeling sort of dumb when I don’t get them. Maybe because I’ve only ever seriously approached them with a teacher to guide my understanding and don’t feel really capable when muddling through on my own.

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  2. that Spanish *Ay* can be hard for a non-native to pull off with any conviction
    Maybe, but Angel spent several minutes of the reading repeating what he wrote in the book’s afterword, about how the music of Poema del cante jondo had felt native to him.

    Those difficult poems leave me feeling sort of dumb when I don’t get them.

    All difficult poems, or only certain kinds? Or is this feeling of intellectual inferiority something you use to decide whether or not a poem is difficult?

    I ask because I do see a sharp distinction between poems such as the Ashbery one with which I started and the average poem by someone like Ralph Angel (or Reginald Shepherd, for that matter). I think Ashbery and his epigones would be pleased to know that us less-sophisticated types feel excluded by his “extensive linguistic play” and “parodic tone,” which seem tailor-made for an in-group of fellow sophisticates. Unlike you, I am never intimidated by stuff like this — maybe I should be. As you can probably tell from my lame attempt at an Ashbery parody, I do feel his poetry is “difficult… in an attempt to cover up [its] vacuity.”

    As for Kooser, I very much agree with Dana Gioia’s point in the linked essay (and it’s not often I agree with Mr. Gioia about something): an apparently easy poem can be very difficult to write. A superficially difficult poem, by contrast, can be relatively easy to write, especially if it remains in the realm of pure intellectuality and doesn’t attempt to make any deeper appeal to the spirit or emotions.

    That’s one way in which the easy and the difficult can complement each other. Also, what one person finds easy to understand another may find impenetrable. Snarky detractors of Ted Kooser or Mary Oliver may, in fact, be out of their depth and unwilling to recognize the fact. The quality of attention needed to really hear certain poems may simply not be available to those who spend all but ten minutes of every day inside, breathing each other’s stale air.

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  3. I think if poets are going to read their work aloud, they should practise being heard, otherwise what’s the point?

    I know there’s plenty to think about while a person’s up on stage [nerves, do I gotta go pee, is my time up, why are they looking at me funny, have I got all my poems, hey, he’s cute, random thoughts like that] but that’s why one has to warm-up beforehand.

    Still, I prefer to hear the actual poet read their own work, rather than listen to an actor do it — ugh. Okay, only if the poet is really, really atrocious [ear-bleedingly bad] would I forgive somebody else reading a poet’s work, for the sake of receiving the message clearly. :)

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  4. Ivy – Thanks for weighing in. I’m sure you have vastly more experience than I do in giving and attending public readings. I agree, one can learn things about a poet’s work from listening to her read that one can’t get any other way, even if the reading isn’t all that good. I certainly felt that way about hearing Ralph Angel. I came away with the impression of a kind, sincere, and very hip fellow (I was sitting in the second row, which helped a lot), and feel that presence when I read his work now. A better example would be Tess Gallagher, whom I had read quite a bit before I heard her read, but never quite “got” for some reason. The reading turned me into a big fan. Afterwards I went back and read the same poems and couldn’t see how I had missed the point of them before.

    I am a big believer in starting off readings with one or two poems by other people, though. I think there’s a lot of value in public poetry recitation, and wish there was more of it.

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  5. Dave….Your post made me think. What is a difficult poem and why is it difficult? To me, a poem is difficult if I cannot allow myself to be in a similar mental and emotional state as the poet was when he or she wrote. In other words my ears must really listen to the poet’s “voice”. If I cannot suspend disbelief then it is difficult for me. If I am reading a poem, I prefer to read it aloud so that I can put a voice to the words. Then I am engaging my senses, my intellect, heart and if I am fortunate the Duende. Ralph Angel was probably just having a bad evening. The Duende did not want to be in a lecture hall. He was probably outside looking for the dark places.

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  6. Don’t you think there is a toneless, mechanical sort of reading (almost a form of self-defense) that has dominated public reading for decades now?

    It amost seems to be a reaction against the late nineteenth-, early-twentieth century mode of public reading (compare it with, say, a Yeats recording), and another way in which poets could set themelves up as utterly different from what had come before.

    It all seems part of the desire for the inaccessible. The mode is a form of affectation–I remember absorbing this style in college and later rejecting i.

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  7. It all seems part of the desire for the inaccessible.
    That’s an excellent and subtle point.

    I think different poet-tribes have different ways of reading, though. A lot of what you might call mainstream poets do seem to go in for a sort of chanting, with rising inflection at the end of each line or stanza. I don’t know if I’d call it toneless or mechanical. But I’ve heard plenty of poets who go for simply a slightly more dramatic version of a normal reading voice, which is what I prefer myself. And obviously there are many who declaim or act out their poems in high dramatic fashion. So I don’t know if any one style of delivery can be said to dominate any more.

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  8. I love to hear poetry read aloud. I’ve never been to a reading, but enjoy those I do hear once in a while on the radio. It really helps me to understand and get a better sense for the poem.

    I remember once at a translation conference in college hearing a translator read one of Ernesto Cardenal’s poems that I’d read often in Spanish, yet hearing it for the first time in English was very powerful and changed totally my experience with the poem and the poet. Not to mention the huge crush I developed on the translator as a result. ;-0

    I really enjoyed your links in this post and especially the Gioia essay. I hadn’t read any criticism of Kooser before and found his point about the simple poems being the most difficult to craft interesting.

    I think you’re right that I’m easily intimidated by poetry, but don’t know that I know enough about how to talk about it to be able to classify for you the type of poems that I find difficult. Sometimes I feel like all I understand are images, without being able to infer the whole meaning; does that make any sense?

    I haven’t read or studied much in English; maybe that is part of the issue for me. Among Spanish prose I prefer those who write simply; Galdos and Baroja, for example, and Neruda. Machado and Lorca seem overly difficult – but why? I’m not sure.

    Sorry to go on so.

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  9. Sorry to go on so.
    Don’t be absurd. Your comment was just the length it need to be, I think, and you make your points succinctly and well.

    I’ve been reading poems by Machado, Lorca and the other Spanish surrealists – in bilingual editions – ever since my mid-teens, but I still wouldn’t claim to have really, completely understood them. However, I understand enough to know that I love their imagery, their dark moods, their flashes of insight into the soul. I dunno. I’m not very good at writing/talking about poetry either. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with responding to the imagery first and foremost, though your remarks about listening to recordings suggest that the music, too, has a strong if not primary appeal.

    Anyway, thanks for your detailed and sympathetic response to this post. I almost took it down after I posted it, because I felt some parts of it were unecessairly snarky (who really cares whether I like John Ashbery or not?). Glad you liked the links – I had fun digging them up.

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  10. Fred – I just noticed that my response to your comment seems to have vanished.

    Your remarks about Angel’s reading are very charitable; maybe you’re right.

    To me, a poem is difficult if I cannot allow myself to be in a similar mental and emotional state as the poet was when he or she wrote.
    Yes. Which kind of suggests that readers will gravitate toward poets whose worldviews are similar to their own, doesn’t it? Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

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  11. Interesting piece. I’d have a difficult time sitting through a reading given by a poet who didn’t seem to have at least a little enthusiasm for what they had written. I feel rather the same about seemingly brilliant professors who can make their lectures so boring that it makes it difficult to listen, concentrate, enjoy and understand.
    This is just my opinion, but poetry has always seemed as much about performance as about written words. The speaking is what makes it come alive for me. If I don’t understand a poem, I read it aloud two or three times. Btw, when I was working on my graduate degree in Eng. lit, I was assigned to the university’s writing tutorial services. I used to work with students who were having problems with their essays. I frequently had students bring in a poem they were supposed to write about. They wouldn’t know what to say because they didn’t understand the poem. I think they thought I’d explain it to them. Instead, I’d make them read it to me at least a couple of times — sometimes more. The first time, was usually quite pathetic. Subsequent attempts were usually much better. After a couple of readings, we’d sit and discuss the poem – and most times, they’d already be starting to get the meaning. I liken the process to talking to your dog about your problems. You already know the answer, but you just have to hear it.

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  12. That’s very interesting, Bev. I think if I were reading your comment first thing in the morning, I’d have a lot to say in response – the merits of orality vs. literacy is one of my favorite hobbyhorses – but right now my brain is too tired to register much more than, “Yeah – that sounds about right!”

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  13. Regarding orality vs. literacy, that’s of interest to me too. Although there’s nothing to say that a poem has to be spoken, performance does give it a different dimensionality. In any case, I think poetry is like most other arts – it will probably continue to evolve to suit the times and the available technology.

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  14. Both of your previous pieces were very interesting. There’s a lot there.
    I’m familar with it and believe I read parts of it while at university — perhaps while studying courses in contemporary aboriginal literature. I find it interesting that, in our own time, we place so much emphasis on the written word, when it isn’t really all that long ago, that the spoken word contained so much power. It still does, but I don’t think we tend to fully acknowledge that power. In my previous comments, I almost wrote about how, as a kid, my grandmother used to teach me to recite long poems (Longfellow’s The Wreck of the Hesperus for one), and also various narrative songs. She was born around 1890, and was of that generation that found pre-radio and tv ways of passing the time – in the form of poetry recitations, story-telling, musical performance, the making of shadow images on walls with their hands, and all of the other areas of knowledge and skill that we are, in many ways, gradually losing as we become receivers rather than creators.
    Well, speaking of creating, I’d better get off this keyboard and do a little creating around my place before the rest of the day has vanished!

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  15. Bev- Thanks for the follow-up. I actually had a high school English teacher who, though not very old at the time, believed strongly in making students memorize poems. I can still recite part of “Elegy Written In a Country churchyard,” but not much else. Even poems I’ve committed to memory on my own, such as the Prelude to The Bridge by Hart Crane and the “descent” section of WC William’s Paterson have dissolved into fragments in my memory. If we still lived in an oral society, I wouldn’t be the poet – my older brother would. He has an excellent memory, has learned many languages, can still recite Dr. Seuss books, etc. So, much as I admire the poetry of oral societies, I’m glad to be living in a literate one that rewards original vision rather than memory!

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