How difficult should ‘difficult poetry’ be?

I make no secret of the fact that I like poetry to be accessible; and by that, I don’t necessarily mean simplistic. In fact, I rather like poetry that only surrenders its meaning after several re-readings – that ‘light-bulb’ moment providing a sense of personal triumph that you have somehow entered the poet’s mind as s/he intended. I liken it to tuning around the dial on an old analogue radio until, through the unintelligible burbles and whistles you suddenly encounter a loud, clear station that you want to stay with. Poetry like that is excellent and to be encouraged; this is not about dumbing-down.

Yet I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s encountered poetry that, even after many attempts at reading, and lots of head-scratching and brow-furrowing leaves the reader either with a sense of failure that we’ve not grasped the poet’s message or worse, that we begin to question our own intelligence and almost feel a sense of exclusion; maybe the poet doesn’t want the likes of us to understand.

I doubt that is the case, but I do question the motivation of poets who write such material. Do they simply exist in some other academic dimension inhabited only by a small, select few or – putting it bluntly – do they write that way simply to flaunt their superior intellectual capacity?

These thoughts have been prompted by yet another attempt at reading The Ground Aslant: An Anthology of Radical Landscape Poetry, edited by Harriet Tarlo, which I acquired following a favourable review I’d heard on the radio. I don’t intend to single out any one particular contributing poet as more obscure that any other, but I’d say that a good three-quarters of the poetry falls into the category of being difficult to the point of inaccessibility. If I could explain why it feels so inaccessible then I’d be half-way to understanding it, I guess, but as it is, so much feels like just a jumble of words scattered on the page that I can’t even begin to unravel. The old fairy-tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes has come to mind on more than one occasion.

Goodness knows I’ve tried to find meaning in these murky works but yet again I’ve returned the book to its shelf in exasperation; it can consider itself fortunate that it wasn’t slung into the charity-shop box. I suppose the reason I didn’t do that is that maybe some hope exists within me that one day further along my poetic journeying I’ll return to The Ground Aslant and suddenly ‘get it’; that I will, as a poet, have acquired some kind of golden key that will unlock the deep and well-hidden meanings that lie within.

Until that day, should it arrive, I will continue to speculate at the motivation of those who delight in writing ‘difficult poetry’ and wonder what satisfaction they derive from excluding so many from enjoying their work.

I will leave you one of my favourite quotes, attributed to Woody Guthrie: “Any fool can make something complicated. It takes a genius to make it simple.”



Filed under Musings

3 responses to “How difficult should ‘difficult poetry’ be?

  1. Have you read The Waste Land? The notes are fun, too.

  2. I agree with you, Martin. I think the absolute best poetry is accessible (even if it takes a couple of re-reads and a good thinking over). After all, poetry -whether spoken and heard, or written and read – is communication, and the art of communication is to make it comprehensible!

  3. Pingback: Poetry and ‘psychological safety’. | Martin Vosper writes...

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