Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Against E-Z Poetry

Speaking of Robert Pinsky, the former poet laureate has published an interesting article on Slate.com, "In Praise of Difficult Poetry." "The issue of difficulty in art is far from new," he writes, "though people may like to refer to some unspecified good old days, when stuff was easier." A fine point to keep in mind, especially since both sides in the argument of "difficult" vs. "accessible" poetry have summoned armies of straw men and flotillas of cliche to fight for their respective causes. But such is rhetoric.

I'd prefer to be neutral in this little war, but I'll admit that I side with the forces of accessibility when drawn into its skirmishes. Still, what I like about Pinsky's article is its suggestion that difficulty can be something we enjoy rather than resist, as well as the way he inveighs against our tendency to view poems as puzzles to be solved, a bad habit most of us learned in high school. That said, I'd suggest not that all poems should be simple or easy to understand (complexity and uncertainty being some of the hallmarks of great poetry), but that complexity and obscurity alone are insufficient to propel a poem beyond its creator.

Which brings us back to extremes. When I write that, I envision the kind of linguistically-occupied poems that are baffling and, frankly, a bore to even educated readers, just as Pinsky envisions the "genial, simple, and folksy... work of Edgar Guest [whose book] Heap o' Livin' sold more than a million copies" in the first half of the twentieth century. Both are over-simplifications. I am confident that most of those arguing for "accessibility" do not hope to bring about another Edgar Guest. Conversely, I am also sure that poets like Pinsky are not eager to see the rise of ludicrously obtuse verse. It's a false dialectic, like red states and blue states. In reality, most of us are somewhere in the reasonable middle, shaking our heads.


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