Friday, May 13, 2011

trying hard

As regular readers know, I’m in the throes of a hot little love affair with Alice Oswald. (Her poetry, I mean.) It’s inspiring me to push out in a new direction in my own writing, and the poems coming along are not for children, necessarily. In fact they may not be for adults--yet.

I took a couple to my long-standing critique group this week, and although there were things to like in my new-style work, for the first time in a while my two friends expressed concerns about being able to “get” the poems. We had an interesting discussion, which I’ve been continuing with myself, about the long-standing question of how our readers “hear” our work when we’re not there to guide them. When I write a poem, I mean something definite if in motion; I’m working to convey an idea and, always, what you might call an opinion about that idea, a feeling that accompanies the small knot of thought that the words of the poem are trying to untie.

But I know, and have come to accept, that when others read my poem they will likely perceive something quite other than what I have worked to convey. I don’t begrudge them their interpretation one bit, and yet it’s an odd feeling to have people who know and love you (including your own father) saying, “I don’t get this.”

And yet, I don’t “get” quite a lot of Alice Oswald—her writing is not clear and concrete despite its clarity and the richness of its concrete details. As in the poem I posted last week, we ride straightforwardly along a Roman road but the “rococo curves” of experience draw us into the neck-high bracken, powerfully. Alice’s work is often described as visionary, and to me it does feel “out there.” I’m attracted to the stuff that’s out there, that’s quite beyond how I would talk to myself about the subject of a poem. I like daring and surprise, which is why I am also a fan of e.e. cummings and Gerard Manley Hopkins. After all these years there is mystery for me in many of their poems; their work remains visionary and I have to try to access that vision and still I don’t know that I get it all. (And one of my goals as a teacher is to let children know that comprehending poetry doesn’t necessarily mean “getting it.”)

My aforementioned father, recently become a student of poetry, sent me a fascinating interview with Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry Magazine, that was published in the Christian Century. Here’s one piece of it:

Amy Frykholm:
One sometimes hears arguments about the role of difficulty in
contemporary poetry—whether difficulty can play an essential
role or is simply an obstacle. What do you think? Or is the issue
not important?

Christian Wiman:
I think the argument is largely a canard. Here's a line from that Susan Howe book (That This) I'm reading: "You steal on me you step in close to ease with soft promise your limit and absolute absence." Is this "difficult"? When I first read it, I admit to having been slightly annoyed at its syntactical confusion, its absence of clarifying punctuation.

But something made me keep reading the sentence over and over—all those soft subsiding vowel sounds mixed with the monosyllabic urgency, the mysterious nature of the encounter being described, the way the line makes you feel something of that encounter and even participate in it. It could be describing our relationship to God.

As it happens, Howe is talking primarily about her dead husband, but the point is: there's no other way of saying what she's saying here. The language is action. Great poetry is usually difficult in some way, and then clear in ways we would never expect. Its difficulty, you might say, makes new clarities possible in and for us. "I wanted to write a poem / that you would understand," wrote William Carlos Williams. "For what good is it to me / if you can't understand it? / But you got to try hard."

Coming back around to the question of whether it’s the poet’s responsibility to make her poem “gettable” to readers, I found this bracing reminder in a Thomas Lux collection I picked up, looking for bedtime reading with my 12-year-old. It insists that we write for ourselves, mainly, just as we read for ourselves, and it all works best when we try hard.


is not silent, it is a speaking-
out-loud voice in your head: is it spoken,
a voice is saying it
as you read. It's the writer's words,
of course, in a literary sense
his or her voice, but the sound
of that voice is the sound of your voice.
Not the sound your friends know
or the sound of a tape played back
but your voice
caught in the dark cathedral
of your skull, your voice heard
by an internal ear informed by internal abstracts
and what you know by feeling,
having felt. It is your voice
saying, for example, the word barn
that the writer wrote
but the barn you say
is a barn you know or knew. The voice
in your head, speaking as you read,
never says anything neutrally — some people
hated the barn they knew,
some people love the barn they know
so you hear the word loaded
and a sensory constellation
is lit: horse-gnawed stalls,
hayloft, black heat tape wrapping
a water pipe, a slippery
spilled chirr of oats from a split sack,
the bony, filthy haunches of cows. . . .
And barn is only a noun — no verb
or subject has entered into the sentence yet!
The voice you hear when you read to yourself
is the clearest voice: you speak it
speaking to you.

~ Thomas Lux

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  1. Wonderful poem, Heidi.

    Sometimes a person can enjoy a poem that s/he doesn't get, sometimes it can make a person feel annoyed, like it's proof that poetry is a waste of time.

  2. This is such a thoughtful and thought-provoking post, Heidi. It's difficult to know whether you are in conversation with your reader or not, isn't it? Do you speak a different language and leave your reader completely confused, or do you try to offer something for the reader to cling to, while still employing the mysterious language you've discovered? I love some of the images in Lux's poem, and I'm going to find Alice Oswald now to see what I think. I'm not a great fan of intentional difficulty, but believe people should be willing to work to understand the effect a poem is having on them, reading it over and over again, discovering new things each time. That's one sign of a good poem, I think - a poem that will grow deeper and richer each time you read it. "Accessibility" should not necessarily be the bottom line (music and meaning, yes.) Glad you are pushing yourself to try new things. As Frost said, "No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader," and in trying new things we are at the very least going to surprise ourselves, right?

  3. So nice to hear from you. It's always fun to hear you enjoyed The Gingerbread Cowboy.

  4. The poem is going to be hand-printed on a roll of chart paper and hung in my classroom. That will be a fabulous touchstone poem -- I can't wait to share it with my students!

    Your thoughts on what we get and don't get when we read poetry are making me think hard about why it is that I lose patience with some poems I don't completely understand and why I am able to go along for the ride with others...

    PS -- Thanks for the happy song!


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