The Fetishizing of Difficulty

Two books that I ordered just came in the mail and they couldn’t be more diametrically opposed: Broken Hierarchies by Geoffrey Hill, a massive and über-serious Oxford edition of his collected poetry, and what is this thing called love by Kim Addonizio, an erotically slim, semi-serious, wry and sometimes sex-filled collection of poems. The covers couldn’t be more different. The cover image on Hill’s book is Kokoschka’s “Lorelay”, a painting that manages to combine drowning men with something like deliberate kitsch (a strikingly and unwittingly apropos cover for Hill’s poetry):

And then there’s the cover to Kim Addonizio’s book.

Needless to say, I was immediately attracted to Addonizio’s book. Accuse me of having a fetish, but here’s the thing, which book really attracts the fetishists? I’m going to say Geoffrey Hill’s compendium. Hands down. Nearly every review I’ve read of Hill brings up the subject of his poetry’s “difficulty”. Here you will find a series of quotes from reviews of Hill, and they all, in one way or another, broach the subject. Thomas L. Jeffers for example, writes that “as a philosophical poet, Hill may not be at the level of Yeats, Eliot, and Stevens (not to mention Goethe or Dante), and not just because he lacks their degree of systematic clarity” where “lacks their systematic clarity” is a wordy euphemism for difficult.

Now when I read poetry, there’s only one question I ask myself: How does the poet use language? The notional and semantic content of the poetry is crucial but not so crucial, to me, as the aesthetics of the poet’s language. Not just aesthetics but I want to sense the poet’s metaphorical genius through their figurative language. A critic is going to read this some day and call me a philistine, but so be it. I read poetry for the poetry, as it were. It’s one of the reasons I don’t enjoy works in translation. The inherent aesthetic beauty of any given language, such as a great poet realizes it, is untranslatable. In the end, as Cervantes said, reading a work in translation is like looking at the backside of a Persian carpet.

There are different kinds of difficulty. There’s the difficulty of Shakespeare who writes the every day but whose figurative thought is so rich in metaphor, whose imagery is so inventive, that one needs footnotes and annotations to fully appreciate it. That’s the “difficulty” of genius and that’s hard work—for the poet. Then there’s the “difficulty” of 20th century poets like Geoffrey Hill (if not a sizable portion of latter-half 20th century poets) whose difficulty is not in the richness of the known but in the obscurity of the unknown. That’s a third rate sort of difficulty that doesn’t rely on intellectual rigor but on trivia—a chough’s memory that builds its nest collecting whatever shiny scrap catches its eye.

XXXII

Composure's fragile citadel betrayed
Common agitations have served us well,
Write-offs as they prevail,
Love-ins destroyed
The Triumph of the Will
Unwilled recall
Kurfürst Leviathan,
Weak celluloid sucked from the can
Go for portraits as if caricatures,
Let us have selfmade greatness plucked by wires.
Must I confess that I'm
Partial to fame,
The grand puff and clatter
Of noble Herr Reuter...

~ Liber Illustrium Virorum p. 716

It’s a tedious difficulty. But it’s the sort of difficulty lauded by poets, critics and reviewers who, having once thought in middle school that all great poetry was difficult (and all great poetry is difficult for a middle schooler) concludes that all difficulty is therefore great poetry; and never matures beyond that adolescent supposition.

I’ve been reading Hill’s book, or skimming (as my reading adjusts to the spirit of his writing). I find him, as one Amazon reviewer put it (referring to his poetry after the early 80s), to be a garrulous bore. His verse is full of trivial sentiments, banalities and rhetorical posturing. It’s no surprise, though, that Oxford is attempting to sell him as the great poet of our generation (and lifetime). Those in the know have been telling us who the great poets were throughout history and have been repeatedly wrong. (Give readers 50 years and they’ll decide.) Prior to 1982, before he started psychotropic drugs apparently, he writes like a poet who understands the difficult art of poetry:

The chestnut trees begin to thresh and cast
huge canisters of blossom at each gust.
Coup de tonnerre! Bismarck is in the room!

Bad memories, seignors? Such wraiths appear
on summer evenings when the gnat-swarm spins
a dying moment on the tremulous air.
The curtains billow and the rain begins

its night-long vigil. Sombre heartwoods gleam,
the clocks replenish the small hours' advance
and not a soul has faltered from its trance.

That is the kind of poetry that greatness is built on (and I’m not referring to the rhymes). If that’s the Hill you want to read, then buy Geoffrey Hill: Collected Poems, published in the 80s. The Hill of the 90s and 00s is a different poet. In the later poems there are moments (to call them passages would be a stretch) of true poetic difficulty, the kind that is difficult for the poet to write and deceptively easy for the reader to read. They are so beautiful (along with the poet’s earlier poems) that they doubtless convince Hill’s editors and reviewers that his bad poetry must be the deliberate kind. How else does one explain such bad poetry? And so we must take his banality seriously.

This is not Duino. I have found no sign
that you are visited by any angel
of suffering creation. Violent
sensitivity is not vision, nor is vision
itself order. (...)
Indecent in turn, let me here interpose
the body of a parenthesis (do we indeed
not know ourselves?). (...)

XCV The Triumph of Love p. 266

And on he goes with such clichés and banalities—”suffering creation”; the banal musings on vision; the feigning depths of his adolescent rhetorical questions. The poem is full of automatic-writing like this—blather. I’ve been reading a lot of William Logan’s criticism lately (because I’m working up a review of his latest book of poetry) and think that Logan gets it right. There’s Logan’s review of The Triumph of Love, which reads like a 20 page apologia and the thing is: Logan really, really, really wants to like Hill. He knows Hill could be a better poet than he became. He recognizes the flashes of brilliance (if not genius); but unlike other reviewers, Logan indirectly states that he won’t be joining the poet’s cult following. Once Logan has served his 20 page tour of duty (having demonstrated his respect for the poet Hill should have been) he dismisses the long poem with one word in a later review—caterwauling.

To get to the difficulty that is the art of writing great poetry, you will, for example, have to read the entirety of Scenes from Comus, all 79 onanistic verses (like little Rorschach tests in your borrowed Playboy) to get to this:

80

While the height-challenged sun fades, clouds become
as black-barren as lava, wholly motionless,
not an ashen wisp out of places, while the sun fades.
While the sun fades its fields glow with dark poppies.
Some plenary hand spreads out, to flaunt an end,
old gold imperial colours. Look back a shade,
Guðríður Þorbjarnardóttir, over your
left shoulder or mine, absolute night comes
high-stalking after us.

Are the other 79 verses (and the high price tag of the Oxford edition) worth it?—with their little glimpses of that last verse? Ultimately, my own judgement is that Hill was neither a great thinker nor a great poet. He was a competent practitioner of his times possessing too few tools to elevate his competence to greatness. And that brings me back to Addonozio’s collection of poems—as opposite to Hill as road tar to chocolate. I confess, it was Logan’s review of her book that made me buy it. His opening paragraph immediately sold me:

Kim Addonizio is that New Formalist dream girl, a hot babe who can bang out a sonnet on demand. If your vice runs to forms a little more obscure, how can you resist? Her come-on seems to be, “Wouldn’t you like to peek at my sexy little sonnezhino?” ~ The New Criterion

Yes, please.

But don’t be fooled by Logan’s opening paragraph or mine. Addonizio possesses all the gifts that Geoffrey Hill lacks and lacks the one gift that should have made him great. She possesses the story telling gift and gritty realism of a Bukowski, the ease with form of a Richard Wilbur, and Dorothy Parker’s wry and cutting sense of humor. She’s all those things with a tender heart, and that’s probably what differentiates her from all those other poets. What she lacks is that difficulty that makes you want to linger over her lines the way you might linger over Hill’s best lines. There is little figurative language—imagery and metaphor. They are written plainly like a Bukowski if he’d ever bothered to write meter and rhyme. In Missing Boy Blues she describes the murder of a boy, sexually assaulted, and begins with the boy hoping he’ll be discovered before he’s “a few old bones”, then closes with these lines:

Once I asked my mother if God was all over.
I asked if He saw us. I had a high fever—
She said she didn't know, and straightened my covers.

Then she kissed my face, then she kissed my hair.
(Then he tore my pajamas and my legs were bare.)
If you're still looking for me, you won't find me anywhere. 

There’s something disconcerting with Addonizio’s lightness of touch, the rhymes that are as half-hearted as elevator music, and yet it works. There’s a Mother Hubbard nursery-rhyme feel to this verse that tricks the reader into complacency but also, perhaps, speaks to the ease with which these murders happen—how easy it is to not even bother looking for the bones. In the poem Knowledge, written in the second person singular, she seems to address herself in this regard:

even now you're sometimes stunned to hear
of some terrible act that sends you reeling off, too overwhelmed
even to weep, and then you realize that your innocence,
which you thought no longer existed,
did, in fact, exist 

And that describes a poem like Dead Girl, where she nonchalantly describes the benefits of being the dead girl “who show up often in the movies” but always gets to be the “center of attention, the special/desirable, dead, dead girl.” And that’s the way with Addonizio. She likes you to think it’s all fun and games. She could be the woman who’s learned to talk that way to men, to abusers, to other women, to survive, to not give offense when she speaks the truth. I can imagine how she might read those last lines— “the dead, dead girl”— dead repeated twice to make sure she’s been heard. Many of Addonizio’s poems are like that, wanting to please, wanting to put the reader at ease, wanting to make you smile the way her verse smiles—it’s okay—all while she tells you the desperate and unbearable truth before she leaves the room.

She writes about death, love, sex; but not all her poems speak with that innocent wariness. She also turns her wit for narrative and straightforward candor to less morbid use:

There are people who will tell you
that using the word fuck in a poem
indicates a serious lapse
of taste, or imagination,

or both. It's vulgar,
indecorous, an obscenity
that crashes down like an anvil
falling through a skylight

to land on a restaurant table,
on the white linen, the cut-glass vase of lilacs.
But if you were sitting
over coffee when the metal

hit your saucer like a missile,
wouldn't that be the first thing
you'd say? Wouldn't you leap back
shouting, or at least thinking it,

over and over, bell-note riotously clanging
in the church of your brain...

It’s that phrase, “church of your brain” that is snarky perfection, that reminds me of Dorothy Parker and Lord Byron, and that made me laugh out loud. I didn’t laugh once skimming through the whole of Hill’s 936 page book. Not once. What she lacks in “difficulty”, she makes up for with all her other gifts.

It’s a frowned upon game to compare poets and composers: how would you rank them?—who was the greatest?—is Addonizio a better or greater poet than Hill? Immediately your game will be suffocated by the nearest pedant who will remind you (with all the charm and intellectual curiosity of a cloistered nun) that there’s no such thing as better, best or greatness, only taste. But let me put it this way, if the late Hill and Addonizio were to read on the same night at Oxford, would you be standing in line with a gaggle of old Oxford Dons? — or with the students? What’s your fetish?

4 responses

  1. “Yes, please.”

    I’m sure you heard my explosive guffaw all the way over there in Vermont!!
    Cheers, Patrick, and happy spring.

    Hendrik

    PS: And I have to tell you,too, I laughed out loud on cue when the anvil crashed the glass and turned to words for Addonizio.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Something to Think About « PoemShape

  3. Pingback: سوچنے کے لئے کچھ em نظم شیپ: – اردو میں خبریں

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