David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: If You Ain’t Got Your Poetics, Man, You’re Sunk

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I’m glad to see Joshua Weiner wrestle so diligently and forthrightly with Charles Bernstein’s Attack of the Difficult Poems over on The Los Angeles Review.

His review deserves attention, and I hope it sparks discussion. The trolling below his review in the comments section, however, so far, is typically wan. Weiner admires Bernstein’s general argument that difficulty is not only the new norm for contemporary poetry but also the preferred norm. And: Weiner rejects the idea that the avant really exists anymore: “the project of Language poetry has often appeared to be a highly intellectualized conceptual byproduct of the academy, and thereby a very odd duck by comparison with other avant-gardes that regarded the university as anathema.” Weiner’s argument is a case for moderation and skepticism.

I’m in agreement with him. What’s so difficult really about so-called difficult poems? Writing them? I don’t think so because failure to clarify has come to represent a major achievement among the practitioners of the difficult. Reading them? Can’t be that, because there is no such thing as an “ideal reader” anymore, is there? There are readers. Plural. Readers favor different modes and have different tastes. Like rooting for different teams, like rooting for the Yankees over the Red Sox (God forbid!), readers select their own society.

Reader A likes her poetry with landscapes and sancti-seriousness. Reader B likes her poetry with surrealistic interiors and jump cuts. I should think the twain could meet. But it’s hard to convince others that it’s possible. Our poetry offers a decent array of options but those options aren’t, in the end, all that diverse. Even if they seem like it on the surface. Typographically. Tonally.

American poetry — from the Prose-Poetry Guilds to the Neo-Beat Alliances — exhibit what are essentially shoestring dissimilarities. Only the studied eye of the dedicated poetry-reader can detect the (well, to us, obvious! vast!) differences among the exclusive po-biz hubbubs — like determining the differences in the shoes stalls at the Great Mall of the Great Plains in Kansas City or at Utica Square in Tulsa or at the Galleria in Houston.

Even from inside the world of poetry, it can seem that one clique of poets is speaking an entirely different language from another. But, to the outsider, poem after poem in America arrives at the same conclusion: a humanist’s appreciation for the fleetingness of existence. The bulk of our poems arrive at the same recognition in nearly every poem—the swift epiphany expressed through an edified and humanized imprint of the poet’s mind. To the outsider, the epiphany expressed through rhyme and meter is little different from the epiphany expressed through disjunctive syntax, whether either is graceful or grotesque. Anyone who’s thumbed through a stack of literary magazines from the same era in American poetry, and in particular recently, knows what I mean. Whether the poem disassociates its grammar from previous codes of meaning or invents a double-twisting villlanelle, it looks pretty much the same to the gigantic culture outside the poetry world. Whether you purchase your revelations, manifestations, or wonderments from the New Dog and Pony Review or the Old-Time-y Ryme-y Quarterly, there still remains a distinct buzzing florescence of sameness in the reading experience. Notwithstanding, I would be the first to grant and celebrate and praise that fresh, original voices always comes through in every generation.

Perhaps that’s just a natural hazard for an art form in any given moment in history. But the Poetry Shop in one corner of America is, at heart, little different from the Shoppes of Poesy in another. I would be grateful if arguments about poetics began with this minor admission.

I can’t honestly say that there’s anything wrong with the situation of aesthetic alliances and associations for our various poetics. It is what it is. But enter any poetry scene in any American metropolis or small town, from Seattle to Iowa City to Tallahassee, and you will find a cliquey village mentality with the same stylistic breakdowns among poets—with the neo-Language poetry congregation operating to create a wave of attention for their wares, the up-and-coming poetry bloggers linking their nifty URLs to develop a swarming community of poetic pixels, and the earnest parlor poetry crowds gathering around the old-time piano to rekindle their set’s chestnuts of decency.

Americans poets are so enamored of equality that they would rather be equal in proficiency than unequal in greatness and mediocrity.

Because: Why shouldn’t we admire both the difficult made accessible as much as the accessible made difficult? I take it poem by poem, don’t you? I mean, I don’t read a C. D. Wright poem the way I look at a Jane Kenyon poem. In abstract poetry, I look for relationships between dissolution and coherence. In representational poetry, I look for insight into behavior. I mean, all God’s children got a place in the choir.

I want to think that audiences — and that’s really what a conversation about “difficulty” comes down to, finding the audience that will suffice to appreciate the poetry — that audiences admire, appreciate, and favor the difficult. We do so in sports — it’s damned difficult to run 26 miles in under three hours. Damned difficult to complete a backward arm-stand double with a half twist from the 10 meter platform and then enter the water with a splash that could fit inside a thimble. We admire difficulty in orchestral music and opera, ballet performances and visual art, street drumming and baton twirling. Why not poetry? When did difficult become controversial? When did the accessible?

Let’s be fair, for its un-calculated directness, Jane Kenyon’s “Let Evening Come” is as difficult an achievement as the variegated diction and figurative brushstrokes in C. D. Wright’s Deepstep Come Shinging. Just because I prefer the latter over the former…well, that just tells you more about me than about those poems, doesn’t it? But I know that both poems surpass their ambitions in ways I admire and delight in.

Difficult has come to mean the new or the avant. But the avant has long disappeared. Here’s the art critic Robert Hughes on the subject back in 1980: “What has our culture lost in 1980 that the avant-garde had in 1890? Ebullience, idealism, confidence, the belief that there was plenty of territory to explore, and above all the sense that art, in the most disinterested and noble way, could find the necessary metaphors by which a radically changing culture could be explained to its inhabitants.”

Besides, I weary of the debate. Not the poetry wars between free and formal verse that Bernstein’s book dismisses but yet paradoxically reanimates. That debate was always utterly primitive. Free, fixed, open, traditional — it’s all formal, all of it. Every poem relies on fashioning the range of potential in form to advance an argument inherent in content. That old cooked-raw debate has no legs.

Still I’m weary of the insularity of the debate over difficulty. What the non-poetry public sees when it looks at our poems are few originals and many copies. For all of our certainty about our art’s vast dissemblance, the outsider and potential readers look at the offerings in poetry at best with curiosity and at worst as invisible. For all of our certainty that our crick-necked debates are art-affirming and essential for their own sake, and that our various stylistic and aesthetic commitments must be held and adhered to, the outsider is blind to our debates — my anxiety is that the debates sometimes come down to the difference between tastes great and less filling.

And this: Worse than blind, the outsider is excluded, unconcerned, often dismissive. To the smart, engaged, committed, broadly-inclined cultural consumer, figuring out the differences among the warring poets in the fast lanes of American poetry would be no more possible or, I fear, even worthwhile than trying to differentiate among the flavors of tortillas served at Taco Bell, Taco Bueno, Taco Cabana, Taco del Mar, Taco John’s, Taco Mayo, Taco Tico, or Taco Time. The difference is like choosing between corn and wheat.

Whose fault is that? The “difficult poets?” The “accessible poets?” The public? Ditch the poetics, dudes. If you write to have your poems exist in a public space, write to connect. Write to delight.

Poetry Wire asks Robert Frost what he thinks of the MFA era: Well, not exactly. But the four time Pulitzer Prize winner offers his endearingly cantankerous views about whether writers should study creative writing at university during a 1955 Christmas Day interview on Meet the Press (yes, that Meet the Press).


David Biespiel is the author of five collections of poetry: Charming Gardeners, The Book of Men and Women, Wild Civility, Pilgrims & Beggars, and Shattering Air. More from this author →