by Marie Marshall
But the fact of modern poetry’s being “hard to read” can be extolled as a virtue in and of itself […]. In writing that is propelled by sonic associations, for example, what one might call musicality, the result may, paradoxically, be a form of realism, giving the poem’s language material reality, palpability, presence, and worldliness. Such difficulty, even when it doesn’t produce conventional sense, may be engaging in its own right; or, from another point of view, it may be disengaging. It may be emblematic of resistance, elaborating a rejection and even a defiance of the production of totalizing and normalizing meanings, in resisting dogmatism, it may create spaces for ambiguity, provisionality, and difference. […] it may serve to roughen the surface of the work, so that it catches one’s attention, impedes one’s reading, wakes one up to reality. (Lyn Hejinian, The Language of Inquiry, p330)
I am grateful to a friend of mine for pointing me in the direction of the above quotation. It comes from a book of collected essays by one of the late 20c’s most challenging and fascinating poets, and one for whom I have a great regard. I say 20c, but of course Lyn Hejinian is still with us, and long may she remain. My reference was to the fact that it was in the 1970s that she, along with the likes of Barrett Watten, came to write a type of poetry that attempted to put the reader and the reader’s interpretation at the forefront of the creative process.
I have often, in conversation and on line, mentioned Roland Barthes’ famous essay ‘The Death of the Author’. These days it has become fashionable to scoff at Barthes, but for me he will always remain someone who forced home the important lesson that it is impossible to isolate The Great Poet-Goddess and Her Great Work from what came before and what comes after, that this Great Work is a work of a moment’s completion, after which it is totally free of the further influence of the Great Poet-Goddess, and is the property of all of us.
And that last phrase – ‘the property of all of us’ – is a principle that drives much of my poetry these days. I write for everybody. I write my poetry to turn it over to you. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to read. ‘Accessibility’ isn’t the point. Everything is inaccessible until you access it, and to access something doesn’t necessarily means you’ll instantly ‘get’ it.
People seem to think that it’s all right to be really into, say, Wagner, and yet also listen to Country & Western, and Trance. But not the other way round, for some reason. That’s where class and intellectual snobbery rear their ugly heads, and conversely intellectual reverse-snobbery too – yes, it works both ways. And all of this makes people feel that they can’t pick up something outside their comfort zone. We fear the facile and we fear the difficult.
But my message today is that difficulty belongs to all of us. Lyn Hejinian’s words at the head of this blog post seem, at first sight, not to offer much satisfaction. They are not a key to interpreting the intentions of a ‘difficult’ poet’s work, they seem to leave all that up in the air – it might be this, it might be that, it might be the other. But that is nothing more nor less than openness. It is an invitation to take a piece of ‘difficult’ poetry (or art, or music, or whatever) and run with it. If you don’t ‘get’ all of it, so what? Get what you can, make something out of it, play with the words and with the associations they spark in your own mind.
My poetry, at least some of it, resides here. Pick it up and run with it. It’s yours.
Reblogged this on Kvenna ráð and commented:
Today, rather than write poetry (I’ll get back to that in due course) I have written a few words about poetry, and about ‘difficult’ poetry in particular. I have committed it to my main web site, but I decided I would also interrupt my current sequence of poems here, to put it before my readers.
Same old arguments we’ve heard from the postmodernists for 40 years now. Any wonder poetry no longer has the appeal to a mass audience. “Difficult” is not the same as pointlessly obfuscated. Art for art’s sake is all very well in its own right but it then becomes an elitist occupation, of interest to only the select few specifically trained to interpret its symbology. It also enshrines the poet as the figure of importance rather than the poem, i.e. ‘See how clever I am, making all these unanticipated or discordant associations.’ Again, fine if your interest is in catering only to a select elite, but for the age-old role of poetry as the voice of everyman or woman, it has no real use.
Thanks for the comment, Sean. I don’t usually post replies on this site, preferring to let people’s comments stand/fall on their own merit; but as a point of information Lyn Hejinian is (considered) a neo-modernist, rather than a postmodernist, and the thrust of her overall poetics – and mine to a considerable extent – is, as stated above, away from the ‘poet as figure of importance’.
i actually tend to be in the camp of writing poetry with a defined sense that must be understood, to get a poem i wrote; but i am fascinated by this sort of poetics, which i am not sure you’ve really understood. i don’t mean this as an insult, but merely that you haven’t stretched the usefulness of such a poetics to reflect the instability of out times, intellectually— rather than say “intellectual matters are confusing because A says B & B says A & D criticizes both, by quoting a study by C, who got all their information from F through to L” it aims to reflect in its shifting tide of imagery & occupation with associations at various level, the reality of a world saturated in phenomena & information, a world that shifts from the abstractedly minute to the infinitely all consuming & expansive.
The world of the simple straightforward lyric was yet to realize a force that actually breaks down information, yet to know the observer affects the observed. & yes, you can explicitly say this, but there is more ingenuity to humanity than being straightforward.
i write this because Marie, though i don’t always get her, writes a poetry that impresses me, it affects me at a level most poetry doesn’t, she infuses me through her poetry to tap into an inexhaustible spring of potentials for articulating the world we find our selves at odds to comprehend.
If you understand this world & society we are in, then please tell me how, because i am all ears, because it looks like a chaos to me.
Marie, firstly of course I’m biased, but I know of no other writer of prose and poetry – no other editor for that matter – who is as little concerned with adopting labels such as ‘postmodernist’ as you are.
Secondly I have read Hejinian’s ‘My Life’ and found it eminently ‘accessible’, for what it’s worth.
Lastly, for your critic above to equate ‘put the reader and the reader’s interpretation at the forefront of the creative process’ and ‘free of the further influence of the Great Poet-Goddess’ on the one hand, with being ‘specifically trained to interpret [a poet’s] symbology’ and ‘the poet as the figure of importance rather than the poem’ on the other, is perverse. They are clearly at opposite poles.
[…] yer ears puckered for some difficult poems by yours truly, in the meanwhile, read Marie’s original post on difficult […]
“I write my poetry to turn it over to you.”. Yes. I’ve been needing this wisdom, and I’m grateful to you.
I too found a great deal of wisdom and worthwhile questions in this post.
One thing I picked out of the thoughts early in this, which resonates with my own thoughts this year, was the musical element. I think it’s possible that we’ve had too much thought about the supposed special language of poetry as meaning, as if it’s an elite form of an essay.
What about thinking instead, as was once common, that poetry is musical speech? In such an outlook we are freed of a need for the words to be either simply comprehensible (e.g. what does Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” “mean?”) or for them to necessarily demonstrate some bravura display of difficult linguistic tactics. Instead they can be anywhere between those poles because the job of the poem is to move us musically (that is to say, as music does, not necessarily that it follows some special metrical rules). This doesn’t mean a flight from meaning (the poem can still mean anything that it could before I think), but that we can relax about the meaning and follow the musical flow of thought and it’s expression. We can grasp a meaning right away, or later, or in a shifting continuum of understanding over time.
This is generally how the ancients seemed to understand poetry. It’s only been in the last 200 years or so that we’ve presumed they were wrong as silent poetry consisting only of written language has become the paradigm. Of course the ancients were wrong about a lot of things, but just maybe they were right about this?
I wonder if I may be the one to offer a partial answer to this point?
It seems to me that what you’re advocating is much along the lines of Basil Bunting’s poetics. Bunting said that reading in silence is the source of half the misconceptions that have caused the public to distrust poetry, and that without the sound of recited poetry “the reader looks at the lines as he looks at prose.” Prose, to Bunting, exists to convey meaning, whereas the business of poetry is to convey beauty – “This needs no explaining,” he said, “to an audience which gets its poetry by ear.” This is something that Bunting emphasised to anyone who asked him about his magnum opus ‘Briggflatts’, or begged for some clarification.
Yet the same insistence on the poem’s musicality, the apologia for sound as meaning, and classifying ‘Brigflatts’ as a sonata (as Bunting did), leads directly to the problem phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty points out:
“The musical meaning of a sonata is inseparable from the sounds which are its vehicle: before we have heard it no analysis enables us to anticipate it; once the performance is over, we shall, in our intellectual analyses of the music, be unable to do anything but carry ourselves back to the moment of experiencing it.”
Merleau-Ponty further argues that, to someone who experiences both language and the sound of music, language is the more transparent because most of the time we remain within the bounds of constituted language, providing ourselves with its available meanings; in music, by contrast, no vocabulary is presupposed, meaning appears to be linked to the empirical presence of the sound, and therefore music “strikes us as dumb.” So apart from the experience of the sound as a phenomenon in itself, there is no tangible ‘meaning’ to grasp, and Bunting’s insistence appears to be in vain.
Marie’s poetics – if I have understood them right – are much more a kind of “it is what it is” approach, almost an anti-intellectual approach to embracing ‘difficulty’ in art. Working in language-on-the-page/screen, whilst not excepting her poetry from being read out loud if you really want to, seems to bring her closer to Hejinian, who begs the reader to transgress ‘constituted language’ by making new meanings available. Both of these latter poets seem to do this by juxtaposing seemingly unrelated sentences, complete in themselves, and inviting the reader to form links between them. It’s an invitation to be creative rather than a passive absorber of either ‘music’ or meaning.