Tag Archives: Jim Kleinhenz

arduity: a difficult poetry update

This is to announce a flurry of recent activity from contributors which is especially welcome as it means I feel less guilty about not being able to write anything useful about Eliot.
Vance Maverick has written on ‘Povel’ by Geraldine Kim which has certainly made me think again about the quality of ‘experimental’ work in the USA.
Taylor Gould has kicked off a debate on the almost dead body that is contemporary poetry and this has drawn responses thus far from Vance and myself. We all seem to be strong on diagnosis but less confident with regard to cure. Anyone else wishing to make a contribution can contact me using the address on the arduity site.
Jim Kleinhenz has produced a long and wonderfully digressive piece on Wallace Stevens’ “The Rock” which manages to take in Beethoven, Said, Adorno and many others along the way.
Any further contributions would, as ever, be most welcome.
I’ll now digress into my Eliot problem. I first read the poems forty years ago and have re-read infrequently since, I’ve also read more about Eliot than any other 20th century poet so I should be fairly well equipped to write a few sentences about the work. The problem is that so much stuff has been written that it’s really hard to write something that doesn’t feel redundant. I feel (in the spirit of the project) write something helpful about “The Wasteland” but I don’t find the poem that interesting except for its historical context. This is probably because I think I know where most of the bodies are buried and I don’t want my disenchantment to come through. I have tried but there’s too many lines that seem cheap and I’m unable to refrain from pointing at them. This is not helpful to readers who want to feel more confident in dealing with difficulty.
So, a personal plea for anyone who can write a helpful introduction to either “The Wasteland” or “The Four Quartets” without getting too lit crit or contextual would be very much appreciated.
One final question- can Zbigniew Herbert be considered to be difficult?

Clarifying Difficult Poetry

This is a shameless plug for the arduity project which I’ve mentioned before which is either an exercise in pure self-indulgence or an essential public service. The idea is to encourage ‘ordinary’ readers of poetry to engage with verse that is considered to be difficult. The sub-text is to encourage these readers to contribute their own response to this kind of work thereby creating a discourse outside of the academy.

At the beginning of the summer this seemed to be a great idea. I’d cut my teeth on Celan and Hill and was beginning to get a bit more coherent about Prynne and (as with any neophyte) was filled with ardent enthusiasm for all things difficult. Somewhere at the back of my skull I knew that this wasn’t quite that clear-cut but I plunged in without asking too many further questions. Three months in and the issues that I ignored come back to haunt me. The big one is the definition of  ‘difficult’ and whether the site should mainly focus on modernism, with its penchant for deliberate opacity, or whether other poets and poems should be included.

The other struggle is to get the balance right between enthusiasm for the subject and being overly didactic (my daughter’s term). I do want to give the impression that Prynne and Hill are a joy to read but I also want to give some indication as to why this might be the case and I am trying hard not to couch too much stuff in abstract terms. For example, I currently have a Charles Olson problem in that I’ve decided that the Maximus Poems are difficult in terms of form, length and the underlying ideas but I want to communicate the enthusiasm that I felt on my first reading. This is difficult because I’ve read a lot of background stuff since and it’s really tempting to talk about Alfred North Whitehead even though that would deter many first timers.

I don’t want to provide a blow by blow guide to individual poems because it’s important that readers do their own work of interpretation. What I think the site is trying to do is give readers the conceptual resources and confidence to begin to tackle this material. To this end the site also contains a list of resources and useful critics. This second element is tricky because I know what I’ve found to be useful but I’m also aware that others may find other critics more accessible. I’ve recommended Derrida on Celan because his reading is the one that makes most sense to me but his style is not to everyone’s taste….

I also recognise that I’m going to have to write about poets that I don’t like. There are some poets whose earlier stuff is much better than the later (Eliot, Ashbery) but there are also some that I can’t stand. I’m dreading the day when I have to write something positive about Rilke for example.

One of my concerns on putting this together was that it would spoil  the pleasure that I get from reading poetry. Thankfully this hasn’t occurred. Last night I spent a couple of enjoyable hours in Gloucester with Olson and smiled throughout. I’ve also taken delivery of  ‘Sub Songs’ which is proving to be intriguing.

This kind of project carries with it a sense of responsibility. I don’t want the site to enter into the various factional disputes that infect poetry but I do want to counteract the view held by some that difficult poetry isn’t worth the effort and the best way to do this is to provide examples of why the work of interpretation is worthwhile without trying to score points against the mainstream.

I’m also making plea for feedback on the structure and content of the site. I know that its design is very dated ( I last built a web site in 1999) but I am keen to know if the project is moving in the right direction. I’d also like to thank John Matthias and Jim Kleinhenz for their ongoing support and feedback.