Monday, November 15, 2010

On the editorial question, "What are you saying...?"

J.H. Prynne on the difference between difficulty and obscurity in poetry:

It is useful to distinguish "difficult" from "obscure." When poetry is obscure this is chiefly because information necessary for comprehension is not part of the reader's knowledge. The missing information may be specific (a personal name, say, or some tacit allusion), or general (an aspect of religious belief, say); and finding out this information may dispel much of the obscurity. When poetry is difficult this is more likely because the language and structure of its presentation are unusually cross-linked or fragmented, or dense with ideas and response-patterns that challenge the reader's powers of recognition. In such cases, extra information may not give much help. Alexander Pope's The Dunciad (1728-43) is now obscure but not especially difficult; Wallace Stevens's "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" or "Sunday Morning" (both published in his Harmonium, 1917 [sic; see comment by Steven Fama, below]) are difficult but mostly not obscure; Eliot's The Waste Land (1922), or in long retrospect the wuti ("no title") poems of Li Shang-yin (c. 813-58), are hard for readers because they are obscure and also difficult; indeed, their difficulties are deliberate and integral to poetic method; compare also the later case of Bada Shanren (1626-1707) [...] In a later case there is pastiche obscurity as a quasi-parody of eclectic learning: compare Lie E (1857-1909), Lao can youji (1907) [...] In such combinations, each type of hardship for the reader makes the other type harder (and, it may be, more rewarding) to deal with and understand.

- from note 1, "Difficulties in the Translation of 'Difficult' Poems," Cambridge Literary Review, 1.3 (Easter 2010), pp. 151-66

Addendum: There is now a website devoted to "difficult" poetry:


Alfred Corn said...

So, using this terminology, is Ashbery "difficult" or "obscure"?

Don Share said...

I would day neither, because though you could look things up, etc., you don't HAVE to. He is the most limpid (and funny) poet we have.

Don Share said...

Of course, as Prynne points out, readers who can be bothered to do a bit of digging around - which admittedly requires a modicum of curiosity - will be rewarded.

See my exploration of JA's Flow Chart, for example, here

Michael Schiavo said...

There's a passage from one of Wallace Stevens' letters (to his friend Hi Simons) that Doug Crase quotes in AMERIFIL.TXT under the subject heading "Native Tongue":

"Sometimes, when I am writing a thing, it is complete in my own mind; I write it in my own way and don't care what happens. I don't mean to say that I am deliberately obscure, but I do mean to say that, when the thing has been put down and is complete to my own way of thinking, I let it go. After all, if the thing is really there, the reader gets it. He may not get it at once, but, if he is sufficiently interested, he invariably gets it. A man who wrote with the idea of being deliberately obscure would be an imposter. But that is not the same thing as a man who allows a difficult thing to remain difficult because, if he explained it, it would, to his way of thinking, destroy it."

Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

“When poetry is difficult this is more likely because the language and structure of its presentation are unusually cross-linked or fragmented, or dense with ideas and response-patterns that challenge the reader's powers of recognition. In such cases, extra information may not give much help.”

Say What?

This is literary psychobabble. If I want “difficult” I’ll read Lao-tzu in Chinese. What is the point of “difficult” poetry in English if you actually speak English? I recommend the New York Times crossword puzzle…not poetry!

All “difficult” poetry is is poetry written by those who can’t really write good poetry.

Gary B. Fitzgerald said...


Those who choose to lead without qualification, skill or education are called 'Politicians'.

Those who choose to write poetry without command of the language are called 'difficult'.


Steven Fama said...

Nitpicking Steve here, bringing up what appears to be the rear:

Don't know if the mistake was in the original Prynne text, the transposition of that text into the Cambridge journal, or the transposition of that into the excerpt on the blog here, but anyway:

Wallace Steven's Harmonium, which the excerpt in the post states was published in 1917, in fact came out in 1923.

Whoever's confusion this is perhaps came about because "Thirteen Ways of Looking at A Blackbird," the individual poem itself, was first published in December, 1917, in , a literary journal. But then "Sunday Morning," the poem itself, or a part of it, was first published in 1915 I do believe in -- whaddaya know -- Poetry, so my theory about how the mistake here came to pass doesn't really hold up, since both the poems were not originally published, individually, in the same year.

So anyway, and again, Harmonium = 1923, not 1917.

Don Share said...

Steve -

Right you are! I noticed that, too, but failed to comment, and ought to have.

I'm delighted to have you looking after nits, of which there are many on my blog, sorry to say.

Yr. very grateful Don

Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

I apologize if I have offended anyone or have demeaned any of your heroes. I've never blamed the poets, who only do their best, just the editors who select what is determined to be 'good' (who, if they had any talent, would have been poets in the first place, don’t you think?).

Today, however, I received my December issue of Poetry magazine. I rest my case!

Really? Is this the best of poetry today? How much of this balderdash can even be considered English? Jeez, Louise!

Poetry, as we all know, has become a little silly over the last few years, but one must be patient and recognize that many deficiencies and deformities will result from inbreeding.


Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

And another thing! :-)

We appear to be trapped in a poetic Purgatory between the vacuous (Garrison Keillor) and the unintelligible (Poetry magazine).

Lord have mercy on us.

Anonymous said...

Easy writing means hard reading.