In Slate’s yearly National Poetry Month piece, Robert Pinsky goes to bat for difficulty. I would have liked to have seen him hit a few more contemporary names, but I guess this was the safer route.
This time, let’s take up a serious issue: the stupid and defeatist idea that poetry, especially modern or contemporary poetry, ought to be less “difficult.” Should poets write in ways that are more genial, simple, and folksy, like the now-unreadable work of Edgar Guest (1888-1959)? Guest’s Heap o’ Livin’ sold more than a million copies (in the days when a million copies was a lot), and he had his own weekly radio show. But Guest’s popularity is history, while every day people still read the peculiar, demanding poems of Guest’s approximate contemporaries Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens. People still read the poems of Moore and Stevens because they don’t wear out, because they surprise and entice us—and maybe, in part, because they are difficult?
Difficulty, after all, is one of life’s essential pleasures: music, athletics, dance thrill us partly because they engage great difficulties. Epics and tragedies, no less than action movies and mysteries, portray an individual’s struggle with some great difficulty. In his difficult and entertaining work Ulysses, James Joyce recounts the challenges engaged by the persistent, thwarted hero Leopold and the ambitious, narcissistic hero Stephen. Golf and video games, for certain demographic categories, provide inexhaustible, readily available sources of difficulty.
Actually, I agree with Mr. Pinsky here. What’s the point of being hand-held through life? Unless it’s stracciatella gelato scooped by Lisa Loeb, I see no point in being spoon fed.