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Howard Nemerov on the Difficulty of Difficult Poetry
Howard Nemerov (1920-1991) is almost forgotten today, but he was an excellent poet (in the post World War II formalist mode so scorned today, especially by those who know nothing about it) and a brilliant thinker about poetry. (He was also photographer Diane Arbus’s older brother.) His witty and formally exquisite poetry deserves to be better known.
The question of difficulty in poetry, what it is and why it is, is one that quite occupies me. From what I can tell, I’m not alone in this preoccupation. These excerpts from Nemerov’s essay “The Difficulty of Difficult Poetry”? (included in his long-out-of-print collection Reflexions on Poetry & Poetics, published by Rutgers University Press in 1972) eloquently and insightfully address that question.
“There is a sort of reader who finds everything difficult if it happens to be written in verse…Such readers really have a very simple problem: they don’t like poetry, even though some of them feel they ought to; and they very naturally want poems to be as easy as possible, in order that there may be no intellectual embarrassment about despising them.”
“There is a corresponding difficulty on the poet’s side; the periphrastic habit which comes from the wish to make common matters singular, easy matters hard, and shallow thoughts profound; what Pope calls ‘the Art of Sinking in Poetry,’ and describes (‘Dunciad’) as a way of ‘obliquely waddling to the mark in view’.”
“…for [some] poetry the possible rationality of nature or history is of negligible interest compared with the philosophically absurd and irreducible brute fact that nature exists and history happens. For this poetry…the particular must not be exhausted in generality, must not be prejudged in accordance with a moral scheme, must, if necessary, live on the page quite alone, without assistance from philosophy, which in some sense it seems to replace. This poetry, which is almost invariably difficult, is so at its best because it wrestles with mystery; at its worst, because the poet has but substituted dream for thought, or has not thought hard enough about his dream.”
“Some poetry, not necessarily the most interesting sort, has the clear intention of communicating—meanings. Other poetry has the clear intention of deepening the silence and space around itself….Meanings, generally speaking, are derived from the world and meanings are communicable; but is the world communicable? The work of art imitates in the first place world, it does not immediately imitate meanings except as these occur in the world (the opinions of Polonius, of Laertes, of Hamlet). Sometimes it appears to candid reflexion that great works of art give no meaning, but give, instead, like the world of nature and history itself, materials whose arrangement suggests a tropism toward meaning, order and form…”
“Poems issue out of world, and then it is possible critically to refine further and think of meanings as issuing out of poems, but poems also flow back into world and become part of the continuum they sought to interpret; they suffer under and make the most of the Uncertainty Principle.”
“If poetry reaches the point which chess has reached, where the decisive, profound, and elegant combinations lie within the scope only of masters, and are appreciable only to competent and trained players, that will seem to many people a sorry state of affairs, and to some people a consequence simply of the sinfulness of poets; but it will not in the least mean that poetry is, as they say, dead; rather the reverse. It is when poetry becomes altogether too easy, too accessible, runs down to a few derivative formulae and caters to low tastes and lazy minds—it is then that the life of the art is in danger.”