The Hard Poem: A Sort of Fiction
A graduate student in my verse composition class said recently, “I don’t want to write poems that can be read in five minutes.” He did not mean, by this, that he wanted to write epics. He meant that he wanted his poems to demand more of the reader than might a five minute gander. I wondered how long would be enough. Ten minutes? Twenty minutes? An hour? Five hours? A year? Had we but world enough and time..., I thought. But I did not say that. I did say that perhaps a good poem could be apprehended in five minutes. He countered that any poem that could be fully apprehended in five minutes was invariably a weak poem, a superficial poem. We were, I could tell, slowly moving towards the aesthetic of the “hard poem”. He believed in the hard poem—the poem that demanded more of us. That is the kind of poem he wants to write.
I am not entirely convinced of the merits of the hard poem. Indeed, I am not sure that spending a long time with a poem is a particularly good thing in and of itself. I am not sure that a quick and immediate response to a poem is a bad thing at all. Most haiku can be apprehended quite quickly in less than thirty seconds, less than the time it takes us to read them. Does that make them less profound? And in many of the best haiku, we can return to them later on and discover something new, something we had not grasped the first time around. Does that mean that we should add another ten days to the period of gestation before understanding of the poem arrives?
My student was really expressing concern (and a hint of complaint) about the workshop. He was suspicious of the quality of comments that could be made about a poem after only ten minutes of looking at it. He worried that much of what could be appreciated about a poem in such a short space of time would have to be superficial. I expressed my own suspicion that he was also suggesting that his own experience of having his work looked at in the class under such circumstances may explain why there was not always stellar praise for his work. More than likely, people just did not get the work because they had not spent enough time with it.
There has to be some truth to this. Perhaps people need to mull over poems for longer periods before they say anything about it. But the experience of reading poems is hardly like that. For the most part we make quick assessments of poems after only one reading, and sometimes, having only read a stanza of the poem. One would not get away with that in an academic setting, but is poetry only read in school and just to answer some essay prompt? We hope not. We hope that people come to poems like they come to biographies and memoirs and novels—open to discovering something new, and yet with a trigger sharp discriminating attitude that will make them dump a work without giving it a second thought. That first blush has to hold some power, hold some weight, it has to take us in somehow, making us want to read more.
I could have expounded on the real life value of the quick read, on the importance of first glances, on the necessity for a poem to work at its most superficial level if it is to work on a deeper level. I could have gone on at length about that, but instead I felt a need to try and tackle what I worried was a romanticizing of the mystique of the poem, a kind of preciousness about the poem that made the “harder” poems seem more valuable. There is just too much going on in a poem for one to come at it so lightly and casually, it said. Really good poetry makes you think long and hard, and invariably you done arrive an epiphany and revelation until you have meditated in the work at length. So I embarked on a bit of a rant about how easy it is to tell if a poem is working well or if it is not. I went on about the deception of the allusion and its capacity, depending on the depths of its obscurity, to genuinely mystify readers of poetry, and in the process turn them on. The allusion, I said, was more often than not, the cause for confusion, puzzlement and uncertainty for people who area reading poems. Ezra Pound in his quite snobbish listing of all the great works that have to be read before anyone can begin to understand contemporary poetry, did a great deal for the hard poem. Basically, he argued that unless one has read a quite impressive and specific list of authors (most in their original language) then one could not begin to view oneself as educated and thus capable of reading a strong poem. Pound was offering up the blue print of the hard poem. Allusion, first and foremost. Twisted syntax, multiple ellipsis and the eschewing of the linear fell in line behind the allusion when it comes to ranking what makes a poem hard.
I struggled with The Wasteland as an undergraduate. I enjoyed the language, the structure, the ruggedness of the project. But I often did not like the way the poem’s notes made me feel. They made me feel like an ignorant person for even beginning to want to understand the poem. Two months later, armed with the key to all the allusions, I suddenly felt brighter, alert, and capable of reading the entire poem without anxiety. Now I knew the codes, the language, even the most difficult poem begins to feel fairly ordinary. So I argued that one of the most important skills we all brought to the class was our capacity to read for the allusion and to know where it is going quite quickly. In other words, I was arguing that poetry is a convention and one filled with tricks of the trade. The more I know about it, the less time I will have to spend on poems that I think are not especially enduring or fulfilling. Once the mystique of the allusion is taken away, the raw poem, chuck full of metaphors and similes and adjectives—oh, the wearying adjectives—becomes an ordinary thing and it will ask the question, “So what?”
I was saying, in other words, that “hard” can be quantified, can be dissected; can be understood. Hard was not a subjective thing. Hard could be worked out quite quickly as long as one has the allusions in hand or in the head.
What I should have said was that that first glance, that look that helps the reader to say, “I like this book. I am not sure why. But I do. I will read on,” is a crucial look in that it provides exactly the kind of data that we want first investigators to come up with. We want to know what is useful in the outward shape of the poem. We want to know a great deal about its structure and organization. We want to have some assurance that if we invest in the poem, the pay off will be worth the time and effort. We can’t always be assured of this, and there is some truth to the idea that people should get into the habit of coming back to poems several times before giving up on them after one reading. But the truth is that people are not going to be so generous most of the time, and a poem, should, at some level offer up something. And this is discernible in the first two reads of the poem. More easily discernible than MFA student poets can sometimes be aware of.
I know that this last statement might well draw the tongue of a number of people. Those people, for instance, who hold to the view that poetry is simply not for everybody and in just the same way that Jeopardy is not for everybody, poetry is for those people willing to invest the time. They will say that poets who try to right for everybody are in fact selling themselves short and are likely to produce work that is simply bad poetry. There is some truth to this. But I have to say that even someone like me, a clearly devoted reader of poetry and someone fully inscribed in the poetry world, am subject to the first glance approach to reading a poem in some many different situations. When someone walks up to me and says to me, “Can you look at my poem for me and tell me what you think?” while handing me a tattered piece of lined paper with tidy writing scrawled across it, I know I don’t have more than a few minutes. When I am staring at a pile of six to seven hundred poems entered for a contest that I have to screen, I know that the poem has no more than a few seconds to win my interest or attention; when I am given a manuscript of poems to review for another poet, I know that I won’t be able to spend a lot of time on each poem, returning to the poem after a week of contemplating it. None of these are ideal settings for reading poems, but they are critical moments in the life of many poems.
In the best of worlds, poems live with us. When we memorize poems they live with us with even greater rewards. We return to them, discover new things about them, and discover new things about us as we mature into our understanding of the poems. This is what the best poems will do, and this is what poetry should do. But a workshop is not such a world and sometimes we have to face the sad fact that the workshop is an artificial environment, an environment that only simulates what happens when a poem enters the world. It is a pale copy of it, but one that offers us some helpful ideas as to how to build poems and shape them, nonetheless. I come to the workshop with mixed feelings, and I encourage those in the workshop to look outside of the workshop for their expansion as poets. If they grow outside of the workshop, if their poems mature and become more sophisticated outside of the workshop, if, that is, those poets have a poetic life outside of the workshop, such poets are more likely to continue in the trade than those who do not. The hard poem can happen in a workshop, but the hard poem does not demand as much time as we think. The hard poem must still promise some pay off.
Finally, the "sort of fiction". Well, the conversation with my student did not quite happen in exactly this way, although it happened and the matters explored here were at stake in that conversation. But I offer this odd disclaimer because I am aware of the seductive tyranny of the narrative and the debate. My journalistic commitments are rather thin in this instance, and I thought if useful to make that clear.
Born in Ghana in 1962, Kwame Dawes spent most of his childhood in Jamaica. As a poet, he is profoundly influenced by the rhythms and textures of the country, citing in a recent interview his “spiritual, intellectual, and emotional engagement with reggae music.” His book Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius (2007)...