Monday, November 14, 2011

A Nest of Pipits, or: The Return of the Attack of the Difficult Poem

Graeme Richardson, in the TLS, says that behind John Fuller's...

"pedantry [in his book Who Is Ozymandias and other Puzzles in Poetry] is a John Bullish confidence that puzzles can be solved - and those that can't be solved aren't worth puzzling over. The book is 'intended to comfort readers who find poetry difficult by showing that everyone, including professional critics, can find it difficult.' What do we do, though, when it seems 'wilfully difficult?' 'My basic position is this: if a poem has not in the first place earned its claims on us in some way, by getting into our head and charming us, teasing us or impressing us, then we are hardly guilty of anything if we put it aside.' Once a poem has earned its reader's trust, it should then give up its secrets: 'we expect cognitive enlightenment from our reading.' Poems, ideally, are therefore like crossword puzzles or jokes one can 'get.' Naturally enough, Fuller's favored poets and critics are 'sensible' and 'down-to-earth' people. But sadly there are silly highfalutin' sorts of poetry in which 'unfathomed characteristics like obscurity become exaggerated, like concentrations of undesirable deposits in the frequently reboiled kettles of pensioners.' John Ashbery, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets and 'members of the Cambridge school' suffer from this limescale build-up. 'The reader may well puzzle over their work, but since pretty much everything in it is a puzzle anyway, it does not really fall within my brief. Nor do surrealist poème-découpages, or Google-generated flarf. There is much that is inevitably eye-glazing about that sort of thing.'

Dedicated flarfists might counter that the same was being said by contemporary critics of T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Stevens and many of the poets Fuller now finds worthwhile. And there are obscurities in these now-accepted poets that ultimately baffle even the great puzzle-solver: what, for example, is Merlin doing in Auden's 'O Love, the interest itself in thoughtless heaven?' After a long search for Eliot's Pipit, Fuller gives up, but 'it does not matter. Some puzzles can live with permanently delayed solutions.' If they can, why can't the puzzle itself be the thing that teases and impresses us, getting into our heads and charming us?"

-- full review in the Times Literary Supplement, October 28, 2011; see also Charles Bernstein's Attack of the Difficult Poems

Pictured: a nest of Pipits


Andrew Shields said...

I agree that poems have to "earn their claims" on me or I will put them aside. But once a poem has done so, I don't mind if it remains puzzling.

Mark Granier said...

''Cognitive enlightenment'? Nah, I agree with Andrew. I don't at all mind if a poem remains puzzling or mysterious; always good to find there are areas that resist easy summerisation: tangled/marshy/crepuscular zones. And the poem doesn't have to be long either (T.E. Hulme's couplet, 'Image', might be an example).

But for me, also, it needs to 'earn' its claim, whether through imagery, a thread of music, a savage humour, a cadence, tone, movement... something for which my mind has a (preferably undiscovered) receptor. If the puzzle seems merely gratuitously puzzling I can't see why I should bother; better to spend time on a real crossword, if you like that kind of thing.

Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

By the way, Mr. Share, I keep receiving letters from the Poetry Foundation asking me to renew my subscription to the magazine. I have been an on-again, off-again subscriber to Poetry magazine for over forty years. I would be willing to re-subscribe under the following conditions:

A) You obtain my books (no charge if you state that they are for the purpose of review).

B) You read them.

C) You select your three favorite poems.

D) You publish these three in the magazine (no charge, but I retain the copyright).

You will then gain $20,00 from my subscription. I will get three poems in Poetry magazine. Quid pro quo.

Everybody's a winner.

Gary B. Fitzgerald said...



I haven’t read much poetry lately.
After all, I have to write it.
I can’t be unduly influenced
or misdirected. And damn!
I’m just now shaking off
Shakespeare and Poe,
Cummings and Frost,
just now releasing the howl
and its cost,
that tyger burning bright
and the dying of the light.

But I’ve read all of the dead ones,
and most of those living,
the famous and neglected.
I just don’t resonate
with these new ones.
They don’t make sense to me.
I don’t get it!

Oh, I get the point, all right!
I just can’t find the poetry.

Copyright 2010 - Mortal Remains, Gary B. Fitzgerald