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Reginald Shepard’s “On Difficult Poetry”

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Reginald Shepard’s “On Difficult Poetry”

Reginald Shepard’s “On Difficult Poetry”

Here’s the full article: Reginald Shepard’s “On Difficult Poetry” in Writer’s Chronicle.

On of my favorite parts is when Shepard breaks difficulty down into types—lexical, allusive, syntactical, semantic, and formal (or modal) difficulty. Here’s that passage excerpted:

It is always important to define one’s terms, and yet it is rarely done. In order to clarify my topic, I offer here my anatomy of difficulty in poetry. I present the several kinds of difficulty in order of ascending complexity.

First, there is lexical difficulty: the poem contains words with whose sense we are unfamiliar, or words used at variance from or even contrary to their dictionary definitions. Hart Crane’s poetry is a perfect example of such difficulty, full of both arcane and recherche words (“infrangible,” “transmemberment”) and of words given idiosyncratic or private meanings: for example, the use of the word “calyx” to mean both a cornucopia (ironic, since the bounty is death’s) and “the vortex made by a sinking vessel” (Crane’s explication) in this stanza from “At Melville’s Tomb”:

And wrecks passed without sound of bells,
The calyx of death’s bounty giving back
A scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph,
The portent wound in corridors of shells.

Then, there is allusive difficulty; the poem that alludes frequently eludes. The poet refers to something we’ve not heard of, assumes a piece of knowledge we don’t have. If one does not know that Herman Melville wrote obsessively about the sea, then one won’t understand that the ocean itself is treated as his final resting place, though the man himself died on dry land. … Sometimes the allusion is implicit or indirect: one will miss some of the force (and some of the humor) of Frost’s “For Once, Then, Something,” if one misses the presence of Narcissus in love with his own image in a pool in its description of a man who sees “Me myself in the summer heaven” reflected in the water of a well. In this case, one must not only recognize the allusion, but notice that an allusion is being made at all. Poems considered difficult often allude to material outside the common literary or intellectual frame of reference. Modernist poetry is particularly difficult in its wide range and idiosyncratic, often inexplicit, deployment of allusion.

There is also syntactical difficulty, the obstacle of complex, unfamiliar, dislocated, broken, or incomplete syntax: one cannot discern or reconstruct the relations of the grammatical units. Swerving away from the conventions of prose syntax has long been an integral part of poetic practice: as Howard Nemerov explains, it is “precisely the sort of rhetorical and musical variation which properly belongs to poetry and distinguishes it from prose.”6 The long, Latinate sentences of Milton’s Paradise Lost are one example of this kind of difficulty; the fragmented, fractured syntax of much avant-garde poetry is another. In the case of Paradise Lost, one can parse the syntax with patience and careful attention, and part of its function is to make the reader pay attention; in many avant-garde poems, the syntax is intended to remain indeterminate, deliberately unparsable, resisting the reader’s desire to make it cohere.

There is also semantic difficulty; we have trouble determining or deciding what a poem says or means, we cannot immediately decipher or interpret it. (It is important here to remember that sense and reference are distinct; sense is internal to the poem, as it is to language itself. … Semantic difficulty encompasses figurative difficulty, in which we can’t unpack the poem’s metaphors, or can’t determine what is tenor and what is vehicle, especially when, as is frequently the case, one or the other is omitted, or when the presence and process of figuration is only implied. (This might be called the difficulty of elliptical figuration, as when in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” Eliot describes the actions of the yellow fog in terms of a cat’s actions without ever mentioning the word “cat.”) Difficulties interpreting tone, determining the stance and attitude the poem takes and wants the reader to take toward its material, would also fall under the heading of semantic difficulty.

Semantic difficulty can in turn be broken down into difficulty of explication and difficulty of interpretation. Some poems present both kinds of difficulty, some only one or the other. In the case of explicative difficulty, the reader cannot decipher the literal sense of the poem: “What is this poem saying?” One encounters this in Hart Crane’s “At Melville’s Tomb,” and he wrote an extensive explication of the poem for Harriet Monroe, founding editor of Poetry. In the case of interpretive difficulty, one grasps what is being said on the literal level, but doesn’t know what it means, what it is meant to do. John Ashbery’s poems, usually syntactically and explicationally clear, often present this interpretive difficulty. As poet Robert Kelly writes in an essay on Ashbery’s Chinese Whispers, “The complex system of reference and allusion in Ashbery is balanced with a serenely lucid grammar-it is perfectly easy to understand what he isn’t saying.”8 In a different way, and because of their very simplicity and bareness, William Carlos Williams’s “This Is Just to Say” or “Poem” (“As the cat / climbed over /the top of // the jamcloset”) present extreme cases of interpretive difficulty, in which the “what” is so clear as seemingly to preclude a “why.” To say that one doesn’t know what a poem means, if one understands its literal sense, is to say that one doesn’t know why it’s saying what it’s saying. The reader asks, “Why am I being told or shown this?”

It is semantic difficulty which readers are usually experiencing when they say, “I don’t understand this poem.”

Then there is formal difficulty, what John Hollander calls the difficulty of problematical form; one cannot ascertain the poem’s shape, cannot hold it in one’s head as a construct. Or one cannot determine what kind of poem it is, and thus doesn’t know how to read it, in much the same sense that one might try and fail to “read” a person. The reader cannot determine or recognize the formal contract (on the analogy of Hollander’s concept of the metrical contract) to which the poem asks him or her to agree. This difficulty is most commonly encountered with poems that play with or violate conventions and expectations, that try to break and/or recreate form: remembering always the intimate relation of form and content, which, as Creeley wrote, are extensions of one another. The question the reader asks is, “What kind of poem is this?”

In the case of formal difficulty, one could add the possibility that the reader understands the terms of the poem’s formal contract, but refuses or feels unable to accede to them. Many American poetry readers today, raised on free verse, find it difficult to read metrical and/or rhyming poetry. They can’t hear its shape, can’t feel its rhythms; its sounds don’t make sense to their ears. This type of formal difficulty can be called rhythmic difficulty.

Finally, formal difficulty is a particular case of what George Steiner, cited by Shetley, calls modal difficulty. When we experience modal difficulty, “we fail to see a justification for poetic form, the root-occasion of the poem’s composition eludes or repels our internalized sense of what poetry should or should not be.”9 Steiner actually writes, “what poetry should or should not be about,” but I broaden his statement to encompass not just topic or occasion but the poem’s status and recognizability as a poem. The two poems by Williams mentioned earlier are prime examples of modal difficulty. To some readers, they are not poems at all, in the same way that Jackson Pollock paintings are not “art” to some viewers. This is another way of saying that those readers lack a frame for these poems. (One often suspects that those same readers, if they accept “The Red Wheelbarrow” as a poem, only do so because it has been taught so often as one; they have been trained to look for its supposed hidden meanings.) Clark Coolidge’s poems appear as gibberish to many readers: they present both semantic and modal difficulty. In the case of modal difficulty, a reader asks, “What makes this a poem?” …

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