Looking back over the last eighteen months I’ve become a bit of a ‘difficulty’ snob. There have been times when I haven’t read something because it seemed insufficiently obdurate. Writing some of the content for Arduity has helped to maintain this stance which isn’t terribly productive. This does not mean that I’m going to spend the rest of my life reading Fleur Adcock and Anne Stevenson but I does hopefully mean that I’m going to be a bit more tolerant of those poems that say straightforward things in fairly direct ways.
This has led me to think a bit more about difficulty in poetry and especially what I would describe as ‘cognitive’ difficulty. It seems to me that people describe poetry that resists interpretation as difficult but there’s also subject matter that can be difficult to read. The wedding reception scene in ‘Stress Position’ is difficult for me because it is an accurate description of an aspect of mental illness that I have experienced. The detailing of rapes in Vanessa Place’s ‘Statement of Facts’ is particularly grueling because of the objective way that terrible events are written about.
The there’s the difficulty presented by the use of proper nouns and foreign phrases. Geoffrey Hill, John Matthias and David Jones are the biggest culprits in this department and it is only with the advent of the internet that some of this stuff becomes reasonably accessible – I’m thinking of ‘The Anathemata’ in particular.
Straightforward difficulty, the kind that thrives on ambiguity and allusion, has been written about at length on this blog with particular focus on Prynne, Hill, Sutherland and Celan. I’ve been a bit carried away with notions of meaning and intention and this is certainly satisfying but I want to turn my attention now to those things that are physically difficult to read, those things that are presented in a way that deliberately challenges our reading practices.
I’ve alluded to this in the past with regard to Keston Sutherland and I now want to contrast this with John Ashbery but first I’d like to explain the background to this. Following a recent George Steiner review in the TLS, I felt goaded into re-reading Richard Rorty on Derrida primarily to check out one of Steiner’s more sweeping generalisations. This was mainly about ‘The Post Card’ but also described ‘Glas’ as “unreadable”. So, I then looked at the first few pages of ‘Glas’ and realised that Rorty was referring to the fact that the text is divided into three or two columns with the intention that we should work out the relationship between each. I then recalled something similar going on with text, spoken word and image in Godard’s ‘Histoire(s) du Cinema’ which also deliberately makes things difficult for us.
As I’ve said in a previous post, Jacket2 are featuring Erica Baum whose ‘Dog Ear’ can be said to be cognitively difficult in that we can’t see all the words and they also have Hannah Weiner’s “The Book of Revelations” which also ‘hides’ parts of words and phrases. I’d never come across Weiner before and I will be writing about her stuff in more detail in the near future. Incidentally, the Jacket2 site now has an index page which makes things much, much clearer, I still don’t understand why they didn’t think about usability prior to launch.
Keston Sutherland’s “The Proxy Humanity of Forklifts” has a long prose section which is punctuated by numbers like this:
“……it was in that case the point of that different from nothing sixteen point three I was out for no points seventeen point eight dead eighteen eaten nineteen if uneaten twenty if not fucked twenty one point four eight if a can on seeing only that denied me twenty two point one four one…..”
This is a short extract from a much longer section but it does illustrate this particular kind of difficulty which comes from not knowing how to follow the numbers sequence and the ‘sense’ of the text at the same time and whether the effort required to do this will be worthwhile. There’s also the ambiguous use of some terms, is ‘points’ in “out for no points” to be read as part of the text or is it some kind of bridge to the numerical sequence?
Then we come to John Ashbery- “Litany” is a long poem first published in the “As We Know” collection in 1979. “Litany” starts with this author’s note: “The two columns of “Litany” are meant to be read as simultaneous but independent monologues.” This of course throws down a gauntlet to the attentive reader- how can we grasp this simultaneity when we can physically only read one thing at a time? The poem itself isn’t much help, these are the first two stanzas from the left hand page:
For someone like me
The simple things
Like having toast or
Going to church are
Kept in one place.
Like having wine and cheese.
The parents of the town
Pissing elegantly escape knowledge
Once and for all. The
Snapdragons consumed in a wind
Of fire and rage far over
The streets as they end.
And this is the first two stanzas from the right hand page:
So this must be a hole
Mandate or trap
But haze that casts
The milk of enchantment
Over the whole town,
Could be happening
Behind tall hedges
Of dark, lissome knowledge
I’m not about to undertake a lengthy exposition of either of these poems but I would like to point out that they are doing the same thing in presenting us with a set of words that are difficult to get hold of and present an additional barrier before we can begin to make some kind of sense. I’ve made the observation before that Sutherland does seem to go in for a kind of deliberate damage but Ashbery (after Skaters) has always appeared too mannered for his own good. So the question would appear to be- is this stuff worth persevering with or should we, like Rorty, simply consign it to the ‘unreadable’ bin?