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Reading the Difficult

A new critique of the New Criticism

O marvelous! what new configuration will come next?
I am bewildered with multiplicity.
               — From At Dawn, by William Carlos Williams

In 1926 Gertrude Stein suggested that “the creator of the new composition in the arts is an outlaw until he is a classic, there is hardly a moment in between,” and the lure of such disobedience is compelling. If you want to talk or write about innovative writing, it challenges our vocabulary: we don’t have the right words to be precise or exact. We even have great difficulty identifying at all clearly the event our reading is, because we barely recognize it (if we recognize it at all), and that, as the word “recognize” reminds us, is a problem of memory. “Americans,” William Carlos Williams observed,

have never recognized themselves. How can they? It is impossible until someone invent the original terms.... Invent that which is new    ...    and there’s none to know what you have done. It is because there’s no name.

The Modernist rallying cry “Make it new!” is thus at some point self-defeating if the new does not have substantial bits of the old clinging to its hem. W.B. Yeats, struck with Whitman’s originality, recognized over a century ago, in 1901, that “when Walt Whitman writes in seeming defiance of tradition, he needs tradition for protection, for the butcher and the baker and the candlestick-maker grow merry over him when they meet his work by chance.” That laughter is very like the scorn John Gibson Lockhart famously poured on the “calm, settled, imperturbable driveling idiocy” of Keats’s “Endymion.” It is echoed in the mirth of a Life magazine editorial in the thirties that ridiculed Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow,” and likewise points to responses like Cleanth Brooks’s 1964 assessment of Williams’s language in that poem as “quite inert. I see the white chickens and the raindrops glazing the red paint, but I have to take on faith the author’s statement that ‘so much depends’ on this scene.” The would-be commentator, attempting to counter such judgment, or faced with unconventional and opaque new work, is often tempted to invent special terms or redefine those already in use. But inventing language frequently leads to an arcane jargon whose complexity is comprehensible (if at all) only to specialists. Redefining terms already in use — especially if they are ordinary words — runs risks of a different sort, for the habitual usage interferes with the 
revised, and thereby results in a confused response if not in confused thought. Both approaches exclude the uninitiated, and the event of the poem disappears.

As a schoolboy in England I was an enthusiastic though unadventurous and inarticulate reader of poetry — the first book of poetry
I bought off my own bat, with birthday-present money, was The Poetical Works of John Keats in the Oxford Standard Authors series. 
It never occurred to me that Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark — which Mum and Dad gave for my eleventh birthday — could be read as poem; its agreeable nonsense wasn’t serious enough and its clear narrative too simple to count — it was too much fun. About a year before I went to university I spread my wings a bit when, for half my weekly pocket money, I bought Kenneth Allott’s Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse, “a collection of verse written between 1918 and 1948” in the Penguin Poets series, for 1/6d. Of the poets — 
ranging from Yeats to Sidney Keyes (it took me a long time to notice that only three of them were women) the only American was T.S. Eliot. For reasons of space, and not because the book was an anthology of English verse, the introduction (dated 1948) regretted the absence of “Ezra Pound, John Crowe Ransom, E.E. Cummings, Allen Tate, Frederic Prokosch, etc.,” and at some length explained why it preferred Eliot to Pound, but otherwise en passant mentioned only Amy Lowell and Whitman. The headnote prefacing Eliot’s work mentioned F.O. Matthiessen, while that prefacing Auden’s mentioned Randall Jarrell; the book failed altogether even to name Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens, or Williams. The headnote for Yeats which starts the anthology identifies “the problem facing most contemporary poets” with Yeats’s “insight” (in his Autobiographies) that “how small a fragment of our own nature can be brought to perfect expression.”

Allott’s “Introductory Note” was thoroughly appropriate as preparation for my undergraduate education in English literature: its expressive and communicative model of poetry fed into, and owed a lot to, the New Criticism, much in vogue in my undergraduate and graduate student days, and indeed after. Brooks was perhaps its leading practitioner. Like the other New Critics, Brooks owed much to Eliot, and perhaps through him to I.A. Richards, whose books Eliot cited more than once in his Selected Essays. Everyone in our undergraduate study of English was obliged to read Richards’s Principles of Literary Criticism (1924); his book Practical Criticism (1929) was the foundation of a compulsory discussion course of great vigor that met once a week for two years. Unlike the book 
after which it was named, the course did not so much investigate the interpretive process as train us in explication de texte, providing 
exemplary instances of acceptable understanding of the poem or prose under scrutiny. The course gave me the habit of paying close attention to the text, but I was not very good at the overall practice of the course. I continually failed to achieve the prescribed or agreed-upon interpretation (“the paradox of ‘cold heaven’ is the very foundation of the tension in Yeats’s poem!” we were encouraged to discern) in much the same way as, when a schoolboy, I had utterly botched scansion exercises; then, I had been told the meter of Donne’s fourteenth Holy Sonnet, “Batter my heart, three person’d God,” is “obviously iambic after the first word!” though my ear still tells me otherwise. Under the expert guidance of our mentors, the undergraduate group would achieve interpretive consensus, sometimes excitedly, but I found the professed clarity of my peers’ interpretation of the text unsatisfying, reluctantly and even agonizingly preferring my own hesitant (and as the course rolled on, increasingly unasked) questions to whatever “answers” that emerged in the guise of “understanding.”

Brooks’s blindness to Williams’s wheelbarrow is of the same ilk as Richards’s somewhat contemptuous dismissal of H.D.’s “The Pool” as an example of “badness in poetry” because it is a “defective communication”:

Are you alive?
I touch you.
You quiver like a sea-fish.
I cover you with my net.
What are you — banded one?

Although he somewhat begrudgingly adds that “it is likely that the original experience had some value,” it is clear that Richards finds the poem’s “simplicity” permanently opaque and blames the brevity of the poem and the direct openness of H.D.’s spare language, with its avoidance of connotation, for the poem’s ineffectiveness. Its closing question can no more be precisely answered with a clear meaning than Williams’s poem can tell us precisely what it is that depends “so much” on the red wheelbarrow. In their apparent inconsequentiality and refusal to explain, both poems are stubbornly opaque, and they are difficult even to describe at all precisely.

A demand for such “precision” — a preciseness not only of image 
and metaphor but of a response identifying the tensions and paradoxes which are (or are assumed to be) the source of the poem’s 
dynamic — is the salient hallmark of a critical method which assumes that the work of art is, in its complexity, self-sufficient, ahistorical, and atemporal: the meaning of the work can be known objectively. The task of the reader is, through detailed consideration of relationships within the text, through consideration of symbols, images, ironies, ambiguities, and the like, to discern that meaning and its movement, and through the reconciliation of jarring and even contradictory elements in the text to discover, or rather establish, the essential unity of the work. Such criteria for the identification and assessment of poetry derives from Eliot’s suggestion, in his essay on “The Metaphysical Poets” (1921),

that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.

Eliot might have Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” or his own The Waste Land in mind. Faced with these examples of the new, our mentors in “Practical Criticism” preferred the challenges thus offered by Eliot and Pound to the ones posed by H.D.’s pool or Williams’s wheelbarrow. With their use of quotations, foreign languages, arcane reference, and (in Eliot’s case) footnotes, they are so obviously “difficult” that they demand the sort of explication New Criticism called for and which now fills so many shelves in university libraries. They are puzzling poems, and the implication (at least by our mentors, if not by the poems themselves) is that their stubbornness will yield to analysis because their essential riddle can be solved. Eliot’s judgment of “Mauberley,” that it is “a document of an epoch,” led us — and our teachers — along with countless text-anthologies — to prefer it to Pound’s “Homage to Sextus Propertius.” Eliot included the first (“a great poem”) and excluded the second 
(“a most interesting study in versification”) from his edition of Pound’s Selected Poems, noting of “Propertius” that “I was doubtful of its effect upon the uninstructed reader, even with my instructions.”

For the poem, especially the new poem, to be worthwhile, for it to be what Richards called of “some value,” we learned that it must offer difficulty of a similar sort, and that analytic description, untangling it detail by detail, was the way to understanding. But faced with simplicity, not that of  the new like Williams or H.D. (we hadn’t even heard of  Williams, and — but for “The Pool” — hardly at all of  H.D.), but that of  ballads from Percy’s Reliques or early traditional work, we were at a loss:

Westron wynde, when wilt thou blow,
The small raine down can raine.
Cryst, if my love were in my armes
And I in my bedde again!

Even with Quiller-Couch’s regularized version to compare, there was not much to say. Like the new, the simple resists description, and this poem simply lacks those dynamic qualities we were taught to notice and “appreciate.” If pressed, we might resort to the kind of associative response which we scorned in Walter Pater’s aesthetic 
effusions over the Mona Lisa. We might — and did — recite “Westron wynde” with pleasure and even glee, so instantly did its condensed loneliness move into our hearts, but it didn’t lend itself to the critical act. There was nothing to describe for there was nothing to peel apart. Shakespeare’s songs, and Ben Jonson’s short lyrics (such as the well-worn “Drinke to me, onely, with thine eyes”) were equally resistant; I got no help from Eliot, who, contrasting Ben Jonson with John Donne, and with fellow playwrights (other than Shakespeare), wrote:

He is no less a poet than these men, but his poetry is of the surface. Poetry of the surface cannot be understood without study.... The polished veneer of Jonson reflects only the lazy reader’s fatuity; unconscious does not respond to unconscious; no swarms of inarticulate feelings are aroused. The immediate appeal of  Jonson is to the mind; his emotional tone is not in the single verse, but in the design of the whole.

After untangling the difficulties, unpacking the abstruse dense referentiality, and tracking the almost gnomic epigrammatic syntax of “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” to see Eliot praise Pound’s poem for its “simplicity” was, to say the least, startling and baffling. What exactly might the distinction be, between “polished veneer” and what I took to be such simplicity as H.D.’s? As I read further and further through English and American poetry it became clearer and clearer, and more and more distressing, that the critical reading method we were learning disqualified many poems from serious critical dialogue. What could you say about The Hunting of the Snark? Why didn’t the lectures I eventually skipped talk about William Barnes of Dorset or John Clare or even Thomas Campion? In his essay on Jonson, Eliot had suggested that this sort of poetry demanded study, demanded “intelligent saturation in his work as a whole.” But, Eliot warned, “not many people are capable of discovering for themselves the beauty which is only found after labor,” a stricture that, coming as it did hand in hand with the critical approaches I was being told to learn, severely undermined the great pleasure I and some of my peers took in such songs and singers by authoritatively calling that pleasure into question. It did not occur to me that the available critical vocabulary was inadequate to the task; poems like Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark and “You are old, father William” were spurious poems, poems
for children. Like “The Red Wheelbarrow,” like almost anything by Edith Sitwell or Stevie Smith or the despised Vachel Lindsay, they were “light verse,” so by definition lacked Matthew Arnold’s requisite “high seriousness”; they were too easy. Or they were simply, as Richards had pronounced, “bad poetry.” They failed to create metaphysical ambiguities and multi-layered symbols and image-patterns, failed to demand of poet and reader the reconciliation of apparent contradictions, lacked wit and recondite allusiveness. The sheer enjoyment of chant and recitation, clarity and simplicity, were not sufficient, or even indeed legitimate; nor was, finally, the discursive poetry of  say Samuel Daniel or Hugh MacDiarmid, whose demands on the reader — whose difficulties — were of a quite different order.

By the time I got out of graduate school I had stopped reading poetry altogether, it had become such a task, and an onerous one at that. I knew I could not understand it and certainly had no desire to teach it. But in 1962 I found myself obliged to teach poetry in a survey course of “American Literature after 1880,” and shortly after that, completely unaware of the sheer unlikeliness as well as good fortune of it, met Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, and (a bit later) Basil Bunting, each of whom had quite some effect. Reading the old New Directions Selected Poems of William Carlos Williams to get ready for that 1962 course, and reading those poems with dawning excitement and intense pleasure, I began to grasp how subject 
I had been to the tyranny of an understanding which insists that the poem meet whatever notions of appropriateness we bring to the reading of poetry, whether of manner or matter, and that all violations of protocol can be accounted for. Such necessity to understand demanded that I take from the poem a meaning I could carry over and apply some other place — that I read, as Louis Zukofsky put it, with “predatory intent.” “To Daphne and Virginia,” “The Desert Music,” and “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” — the long poems in Williams’s Pictures from Brueghel — were an astonishing and exciting revelation. 
I carried them around for days, for weeks, the way I carried “The Red Wheelbarrow” in my head it was so vividly easy to remember — like some of the hard-to-find poems of Zukofsky, it haunted me. 
I began to suspect that Brooks’s dismissal of the poem came from a failure of attention, and that his failure of attention came from a failure of vocabulary. Insistent that the poem “say something,” say “something worth saying,” he had no vocabulary that would permit or enable him to attend the syntactic, rhythmic, and visual play at the heart of that poem, and leave it at that. Unlike Eliot, who is a much more sympathetic and generous reader than his magisterial and ex cathedra tone might suggest (though he too seems not to have liked Williams), Brooks (like Richards and many New Critics) is so trapped in the protocols of his own procedures that the sheer accessibility of  Williams’s language, its simplicity and lucidity, undoes his ability to discuss it. Williams’s poems are reader-friendly, the warm and even intimate voice so inviting and (contra Eliot) so personal, the language so accessible, that it struck me anyone could write like that. But of course, anyone could not: “The smell of the heat is boxwood” — the flat statement so immediately familiar, the perhaps ruminative not-quite-conversational
voice singling out the pungent telling detail, brooking in its personal and unambiguous reportage neither disagreement nor interpretation. Yet I knew instantly, on reading it for the first time, that I might well be reading “To Daphne and Virginia,” “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” and those other late poems for the rest of my life, so loaded are they with multiply suggestive meaning. As Pound said in 1928, Williams “does not ‘conclude.’” Many of  his poems, though pointed,
are nevertheless deliberately pointless, baffling the New Critical demand that a poem lead to something conclusive and definable, in Williams’s view all too frequently stopping thought.

Like many traditional lyrics, Williams’s short poems begin in 
medias res; there’s not an ounce of preparation, no warm-up for the reader, no thematic or social setting of   the scene. The language is blunt, even if the bluntness is somewhat tempered by subordinate clauses.

Between Walls

the back wings
of the

hospital where

will grow lie

in which shine
the broken

pieces of a green

The language is close to journalism: flat and plain, in blunt facticity. 
It is, if we add punctuation and ignore the line breaks, indistinguishable from prose. Any attempt to explore the connotations of “green” or the contrast between its suggestiveness and the sterility of the cinders on which the glass lies, leads only to the banal — the poem registers a syntax of attention, of perception. It is a noticing. To read the syntax as “the hospital where nothing will grow” leads us away from the poem into fruitless and irrelevant speculation, since there is a straightforward and easily sorted syntax available, even if the sentence itself seems pointless and the poem seems to “lead nowhere.” In this, “Between Walls” is like “The Red Wheelbarrow” even if  that poem might be said in its opening words at least to gesture toward a point. For both poems, it is difficult to imagine a social context or setting for the apparently inconsequential utterance: Under what circumstances might somebody say this? And when? Yet both poems, like so many of Williams’s short poems, seem to exist simply “just to say.” There is implacability in the language that resists both paraphrase and explication. The language is so spare, the details so sparse, the statement so stubbornly there before the reader, uncompromising, that the reader’s knowledge cannot intervene, cannot interfere with the poem; indeed it renders that knowledge irrelevant, the poem open. The poem doesn’t care whether you are puzzled or not; it’s an event, and you can join it, take part in, or not.

The central issue that distinguishes Eliot from Williams — each representative of different critical and poetic conventions — is the question of authority and where it is to be found: in the social group or in the individual; in the values of high culture or the values of the street; in calculation or in spontaneity; in the canon or in poems,
one at a time. Eliot is just as insistent in his desire to define and
establish himself within an explicitly British and European canon of great works as Williams is to position himself outside it. Given such polarities, complex though they are, it is not a very large jump from a poem by Williams to a poem by, say, Bruce Andrews or Maggie O’Sullivan. Both suppress allusiveness, in vocabulary and rhythm playing down literary and cultural convention and even 
association, the words flat and plain (though frequently startling in their unusual predication and juxtapositions), the words so aggressively and uncompromisingly there on the page, language constitutive 
of experience, of a social or even a human whose existence we might not suspect. No “easy lateral sliding” (as Williams said of “the 
associational or sentimental value”) into reference or symbol. These are take-it-or-leave-it poets; language is a “What Is,” inescapably and implacably opaque. O’Sullivan is a performance poet, utterly terrific, but I haven’t found a way even to talk about the pleasure her work affords me. Her work so insistently resists the definitive that even now, fifteen to twenty years since I first heard her read, all I can do is point with pleasure: “Here. And here. And here. Look! Listen to this!” The sheer presence of  her words, the obduracy of  her language and its refusal to explain, is not unlike work by Gertrude Stein, who also drops the reader abruptly into the deep end to sink or swim in her ocean of playful indeterminacies.

nailed Eagles                       beryl                           alter vasish
         Owls, Blood-bed
      Bird gear                turbulent


is how one poem, “Hill Figures,” begins. The difficulty simply even to say it, as well as the sheer fluidity of syntax and the indeterminacy of even paraphrasable sense or meaning, are but extensions of the kind of relentlessness I see in Williams. They compel active reading, reading as an event. Harry Mathews has gone so far as to say, prefatory to his brief discussion of the opening of Northanger Abbey, that “of writer and reader, the reader is the only creator” because reading is “an act of creation for which the writer provides the means.” Those means, Mathews says, rest largely upon successive acts of omission. In a similar vein, Zukofsky often commented that to establish the poem as thing, the essential task of the poet is not to choose what to include but to discover what to leave out. For anyone trying to write about the poem as an active object in space and time, local and immediate, right before the senses under the nose, the essential challenge is that of description.

At just about the same time I was discovering Williams I also began, with growing excitement, to read Charles Olson. In “Human Universe” Olson talked about the “dodges of discourse” which come “out a demonstration, a separating out, an act of classification, and so, a stopping”:

All that comparison ever does is set up a series of reference points: to compare is to take one thing and try to understand it by marking its similarities to or differences from another thing. Right here is the trouble, that each thing is not so much like or different from another thing (these likenesses and differences are apparent) but that such an analysis only accomplishes a description, does not come to grips with what really matters: that a thing, any thing, impinges on us by a more important fact, its self-existence, without reference to any other thing, in short    ...    its particularity.

Or, one might say, its inescapable thereness, its ineluctable presence, its facticity: that quality which resists explanation and interpretation and cannot be accounted for. Paul Celan said that for a poem to be a poem it must by necessity include the resistance of the incommunicable — the unaccountable which is beyond (or before) words.

The central and abiding question, then, is what makes the poem the way it is? As Olson so clearly saw, the poem is itself an event, a movement in space and time. Or as Robin Blaser puts it:

The statement I drive the car is much less interesting than what the car is doing. A key, silver-silk, gas, burns, gears, motion, outer parts, wheels, hubs, spokes, fellies, tires, Fortuna, distances: I drive. Perhaps Amor hitches a ride. The first example is arranged according to hypotaxis, — the “subordinative expression” of what is going on in the sentence — I’m in charge. The second is arranged according to a kind of parataxis, one thing beside another without “expression of their syntactic relation.”

One feature of parataxis, with its rejection of subordination, is that the writing establishes a field of significations. Although this field of significations may be tied together by a common theme or “subject” (we know what or rather where the field is — at the very least it’s 
before our eyes), it nonetheless provides a common, in which items jostle one another in more-or-less companionable felicities. Meanwhile the reader, moving about in and through the field, holds “understanding” or “conclusion” in abeyance because the exact 
relationship between the items, each “sufficient to itself and to be valued,” is necessarily indeterminate and provisional. Such writing provides no explicit overarching generalization that ties it all together. 
Although the boundaries may be indistinct, the whole field, all of it, is along with the language inescapably and stubbornly there before us, with its uncertainties and indeterminacies, and it now moves within us as we move within it.

But how does it now move within us? There is a duplicity here, a doubleness. We all of us, even poets, come to the poem from the outside; the poem is a condition of language and an event in it. 
Richards dismissed H.D.’s “The Pool” because it did not match a (putative) “original experience” — as if the poem were the translation of an experience into words and not an actual event of  language. The poets discussed here demand that we respond to the poem, to the language of the poem, as a what is, a thereness, a something outside. They ask us to recognize in the poem’s facticity what Giorgio Agamben calls the irreparable: “that things are just as they are, in this or that mode, consigned without remedy to their way of being.” Yet once we have read the poem, indeed as we read it, it inescapably moves within us, is within us, and in this the poem is like the world in which we move, which moves us, and is in us whether we are conscious of that or not. Our condition in language, our condition as language animals, is irremediable, irreparable. It is beyond “repair,” and doesn’t permit (presuming we want it) the perfect reading Richards and others sought, in which we all acquiesce and are of one mind, “completely” understanding one another. We are inside and outside at the same time, irreparably. That phrase I used, along with the language, was ill-said, separating as it did the “field” from the words of which it is constituted. As Blaser comments, “we are inside The Irreparable. We are as we are implications of it.” That is what makes us the way we are. As Agamben argues (and Blaser develops), language “is not an ‘object’ presupposing the human already behind it, but is instead itself constitutive of the human.” In which case any notion that language was “invented” by or somehow originated outside humans, and is thus separable from consciousness or identity, is patently absurd. We cannot somehow put language to use, a coinage, and we cannot separate ourselves from the language, step outside it, without peril. Despite what my undergraduate teachers told us, we cannot find a meaning and an activity, an understanding and a creation, a world and a doing, that is outside, beyond, independent of, or transcendent over language, though such was, the teachers in my undergraduate years told us, the desirable condition of all art. Each of the poets I’ve mentioned here posits language as a condition of the human, as 
constitutive of it, constitutive of meaning and hence necessarily of experience, inextricably part and parcel of apperception and conduct and understanding. Language is not, then, a means, nor is it, certainly, a precondition.

And the poem? Maurice Blanchot, perhaps echoing Celan, thinks that the poem comes from that inexpressible place before words, from that gap between what might be the world and what might be words for what we find. Perhaps the poem comes from that odd cusp between the two sides of language, the outside and the inside that, mostly unknowingly, we inhabit. What is clear is that the poem brings into being what it says, and does not know ahead of time.

More from this issue

This poem originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of Poetry magazine

  • Peter Quartermain is editor of The Collected Poems and Plays of Robert Duncan in two volumes (University of California Press, 2012, 2014). His essay in this issue is taken from Stubborn Poetries: Poetic Facticity and the Avant-Garde (University of Alabama Press, 2013).

Prose from Poetry Magazine

Reading the Difficult

A new critique of the New Criticism
  • Peter Quartermain is editor of The Collected Poems and Plays of Robert Duncan in two volumes (University of California Press, 2012, 2014). His essay in this issue is taken from Stubborn Poetries: Poetic Facticity and the Avant-Garde (University of Alabama Press, 2013).

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