By ANTHONY HOWELL.
Do I have to understand it? Does it have to make sense?
These are the questions I find myself mulling over as I browse through a pile of “difficult” poets. When I was in my teens, “difficulty” was epitomised by the writing of Alan Tate, Francis Webb and William Empson: some knotty philosophical or political issue or some anomalous historical incident was intensified by being shoehorned into a demanding form such as a villanelle or rendered elusive by references too esoteric to be tracked down. However, a thread was there to lead the reader through the maze. An argument or a narrative was being proposed. This could be analysed using the methodology proposed by I. A. Richards in his Practical Criticism.
But then there was also the problem of fragmentation to be contended with – the debris of fragments accumulating in Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos – and of course the more digested chaos of The Waste Land. It was only much later that I came across the poetry of Lady Mary Wroth – who bent and twisted her frankly metaphysical emotions into complex forms her uncle Sir Philip Sidney might have used in the more lyrical heyday of Elizabeth I. Difficulty is nothing new. As F.T. Prince explains in his treatise on the Italian influence on English lyrical verse, poetry is not simply adroit use of sprezzatura – a quality cited by Baldassare Castiglione in his Book of the Courtier, where it is defined as “a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it”. There is also what the Italians called called asprezza – asperity, harshness of tone or manner – making what might seem easy enough come over as hard to grasp.
It was also later that I realised that Theseus the reader might not have been provided with a thread by Ariadne. Modernism had bulldozed the maze, and what was left was simply material – the words that were all that might be the case. Here was a new form of difficulty – language untethered from narrative. There was Gertrude Stein, and then John Ashbery, and then Clark Coolidge – and after that the “Language poets” – and no credible possibility of understanding in some previously understood way. Nothing necessarily to follow. However, even this dialectic has dated. Post-modernism has come, and has perhaps already gone. Pluralism drowns out all established schools of thought and concepts have become mere tricks of the trade. People now cling to morality and the promotion of fairness and inclusion. So where is ‘difficulty’ today, and how may it be distinguished from the incomprehensible?
I’ll go back to the mid-eighties and start with Wendy Mulford. Her work emerged from the Cambridge background that seemed to run parallel (or perhaps just a little after) the Parisian ex-pat generation of writers exploring abstraction which became the “New York School”. In Mulford’s work, the reader can sense that Ariadne’s thread might be making a return. But that is not to say that it can be followed. It is simply that there might be something that is being followed, by the poet at least, even if an ultimate meaning is undeclared. Here is a poem from Late Spring Next Year – poems 1979-1985:
If I knew what words to give you
I would steal them from anywhere.
Elsewhere comrades are protesting
& the Minister reproves them
He is protecting our freedom
Earnestly our Tarzan lectures us
He’s swallowed all the nursery-tales
at his nursemaid’s knee.
I talk to my daughter about neutrality
she asks me what is Austria like?
I say it sheltered Auden
& persecuted Schiele
I say, it is mountainous, cold
and beautiful. Does it have drink, she asks
oh yes, I say gladly
I return upstairs to my room
I think a lot about your return, die
The lamp gleams on the old green filing cabinet,
its brass plates,
The chimneys gleam across the wet roofs
the puddles gleam down the back-garden alleyways.
It is lightless, cold and wet. In the gutter
little rivers carry away too-hasty blossom.
‘Umarmung’ means ‘hug’ in German. Maybe I can’t understand the poem, but I can hypothesise. I wonder if someone who matters emotionally to the poet is absent, perhaps in Austria (or is Austrian). She is thinking of writing to him (perhaps). She and her daughter are watching TV. I seem to remember Michael Heseltine was dubbed ‘Tarzan’. Her daughter asks questions about Austria – was there a row with Austria when the poem was written? The poet goes back upstairs where she has been writing. ‘Too-hasty blossom’ – might this suggest that she is hoping for his return too hastily? The person she thinks about hugging, that is – and I am assuming that this is a man.
So here we might have a love poem. The poet is allowing us to hypothesise, but she is telling us nothing specifically. She is suggesting an afternoon scene, a lightless, cold and wet atmosphere, an interval of time and an emotion – saudade – as they say in Portuguese. I am reminded of the careless poetic suggestions of Frank O’Hara – careless in the sense that he expresses himself without caring whether we understand what he is saying, expressing himself as he might in a letter to an intimate friend – who will get the references we have no way of knowing.
A similar elusiveness may be found in poetry of Emma Hammond. She uses what I call 90 degree turn sentences: sentences that start off with one meaning but midway switch to another. She revels in the glorious vocabulary of brand-names, products; she closes tabs, tweets. She uses atomic phrases as entities. These may not link or lead to the next sentence you read. And yet there is content, her mother dying, her own motherhood denied or resented. She refuses any expression that is a cliché – and so the language comes over as terse sometimes, but in no way is it without feeling. Here is a poem from her 2015 Penned in the Margins collection The Story of No:
The baby peers out of the screen
like Stay Puft in a babygro with stags
it pushes a hand-crafted 3 wheeled wooden
stroller called Fantasy with zoomed in
eyes so large they lurch out at me like wolves
in woods v pink and mostly your terrible hands
like starfish wave out into
the darkest night with breast milk for making
Your Husband and Furniture and
Family the chin (his) with no shouting no
schism you freeze Baby Food and talk about
Schedules and Sophie le giraffe is day-glo
so appropriate with stages and well defined
Grandparents who come and visit your nest
with Casseroles and Hammers
and how Porky Pig is growing up
In fancy wallpapers and no slugs beginning
words like Bumbo and Upholstery and
Carry on Dad in smiling pictures of the
3 of you and life is an album of Yes
and hand prints in plaster and marks on walls
going up & up in the Feed and high
up always into the middle of the night
where you grip yourself in some inimitable No
A poem such as this seems uncomfortable, since it does not affirm the nuclear family. It feels as if it is in a rush, but that is just how motherhood (and fatherhood, for that matter) feels. I can’t know what this poem means, but I sure can empathise with how it feels. It feels like one is trying not to have a row. So today’s readers may need to accustom themselves to responding to a poem by feeling how the poem feels.
Kathleen Ossip is all over the place. I mean this in the most complimentary of ways. She is able to write in tight four-line stanzas which may or may not rhyme. But then she can switch modes (in the same collection) and use the entirety of the white page, as if she were Mallarmé. Here, the difficulty is one of bewilderment. If one tries to describe what Ossip’s poetry is ‘like’, where should one begin? She can make lists (of the names of Fabergé eggs) – and then one comes across a narrow column of fully justified words – which may or may not amount to some pithy paragraph. Here we get a sequence, followed by a stand-alone poem. Then there’s a skinny straggle down the page, one word at a time, and now a Whitmanesque piling on of very long lines in hanging cadences. I hesitate to pick out any one poem, since this might be construed as typical. I have three books of hers: The Do Over (Sarabande Books 2015), The Cold War (Sarabande Books 2011) and July (Sarabande Books 2021), and I treasure them for the very variety they are bold enough to explore. Her work epitomises liberation. Instead of determining on a style it offers a medley. There may even be variety and variation within a single poem, such as this one, from The Cold War:
Not yet horned, speckled side quivering, pink mouth half-open. Picking its way neatly through the suburban woods.
Grilled cheese* and tomato soup
Peanut butter and chicken noodle
Pea soup quickly crusting over
*grilled in margarine
The boys shot grapejuice
through their squirtguns
onto her new drapes.
Cocktails in the basement.
Pink and purple lurex palazzo pants.
She comforts a drunk friend.
It was so beautiful she wanted to kill it.
It was beautiful so she wanted to kill it.
So it was beautiful. She wanted to kill it.
In this poem I guess there is the sense of the anomaly that is America. Wilderness and wild life on the one hand, fast food and contemporary angst on the other. Hunting gets reduced to shooting and then to a kids’ prank and sexual innuendo. I sense a shallowness and an anger at that shallowness. I turn the page and the next poem is a series of prose statements separated by spaces, one of which is “How to make volcanic passions permissible?”
Later I find myself reading a play-like eclogue, then samples of literary criticism featuring Ivor Winters. The books have a page size which is larger than that of most American collections (which are in general larger than the skinny rectangular books favoured for no sane reason by the Brits). These books are beautifully designed and produced, so the experience of leafing through, pausing, then reading on, there or elsewhere, is a pleasure in itself. For Ossip, the feel of the book is a factor contributing to the enjoyment of her unfettered verse.
So today’s ‘difficult’ poetry does not have to not make sense, as was often the case in the post-New York School days of the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets. No value judgement intended. Back in the early seventies I was smitten by the notion of writing poems as modern as a painting by Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko, and there are still plenty of adherents to formal abstraction in writing, and why not? It is simply that this is not the sole form that difficulty takes, especially in this comparatively new century.
I enjoyed John Clegg’s Holy Toledo! (Carcanet 2016) and looking through that earlier collection again, I notice he too has a poem about Ivor Winters (and his moral high ground regarding poetry) which calls for a return to Kathleen Ossip’s Cold War.
Now Clegg has published a second collection – Aliquot (Carcanet 2022). The blurb tells me that ‘the chemist with a sample analyses an aliquot of that sample, a part of a part of a larger whole’. Here the German Romantic philosopher, Friedrich Schlegel’s understanding of the fragment comes to mind, and the notion that, because it implies being part of something far larger than it is itself, the fragment suggests the sublime, and indeed partakes of it. Clegg’s sense of humour interferes however:
I have watched for a moment, through the basement
window of the Catering School, attention
paid by the Master as her student
scoops a goodsize helping of green peas
from an institutional aluminium
trough, the deep rectangular kind
that rests in a bain marie, and conveys them
into another trough of the same kind, itself filled
two thirds of the way to its brim with green peas.
Likewise, from the far end of Chalk Farm platform
I have seen a tube come in: in the first
carriage, resting against the backbolster
a woman, resting against her shoulder an uncased cello:
in the first vestibule of the final carriage
a young man, also keeping a cello upright.
Detached, they must have been, from their respective
orchestras, and coalescing only
in my vantage point, experienced nonetheless.
There is one huge vat in the world overbrimming with green peas,
one great orchestra overflowing with cellists:
when the partitions are lifted momentarily
the fact of partitions seems the ridiculous thing:
then when the tube pulls in, or the student
completes his task to the Master’s satisfaction,
they rattle down: and the natural unit
of peas goes back to being the serving,
each orchestra reconvenes in its own allocations
Could there be one sublime vat of all the green peas that ever were, are or will be?
Philosophy is brought down to earth here – or is it? Rather, I think that in the poet’s hands philosophy becomes surreal. Clegg’s poems manage also to oscillate deftly between science and day-to-day observation. So the syntax of the connection between amino acids and the measured observations of controlled experiment may be juxtaposed with how something seems when you just happen to glimpse it. In many poems, I discover this sense of how appearances seem:
…At dusk a young accountant
On the airstrip’s edge hallooed two dark shapes wrestling.
He had in mind bored college grads. Next morning
In the Mess an old hand set him straight: a jaguar
Wrenching a spider monkey’s head clean off…
I can hear the voice that is said in. As in his first book, there is a willingness to rub up close against ferocity. Also, as before, he is alert to the plasticity of diction that is evident in this new collection. Clegg is a poet with an ear, and he enjoys language for the sake of its cavils and quirks as well as for its happy auditory accidents. ‘A Gene Sequence’ – with which the collection concludes, uses this love of sounds and rhythmic saying as much as it draws on the names of repeated blocks of DNA to create a genuinely (and possibly impossibly) difficult poem. But I am not going to attempt the elucidation of any of it. Right now, I am reading it for its music, its rhymes and its assonance. This will be my way into it. Understanding poetry does not depend on making sense of point A and moving on to the next proven point. It is not to be read like a scientific proof. Comprehension is hardly what matters. To know a poem is to become familiar with it, to live with it. Perhaps you stay with it in order to know that difficulty better. Difficulty can be the lure.
Clegg writes about onions. There are, if you like, layers of reading. As one reading becomes taken on board, another layer may be detected below. Time alone will tell whether my understanding deepens, whether there is more to understand, or whether there is delight to be derived from what I might still find puzzling. Art may not be nonsense, but then it may not exactly be sense. Like music, it’s a sort of nonsense, and one that in some way provokes.
ANTHONY HOWELL, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, The Times Literary Supplement. He is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbook, The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and Practice. Details about his collaborative project, Grey Suit Online, are here. In 2019, his exploration of psychic chaos, Multilation (with Consciouness), was published by the Fortnightly’s imprint, Odd Volumes. His latest collection is Invention of Reality (The High Window).