Something to Think About

No writer should expect their reader to work harder than they do.”

This was a comment I came across, reminding me of my post “Fetishizing Difficulty“. Something every writer and poet might want to think about. There might be readers willing to work harder than the writer, but not many. One can think up exceptions—T.S. Eliot comes to mind. But T.S. Eliot wrote very few poems in his lifetime and had a reputation for working very hard at them, writing wholesale revisions upon revisions. And so if Eliot’s poetry expects much from his readers, it can also be said that Eliot expected much from himself. If ones poetry is simply a cascading string of allusions to autobiographical effects, experiences and literary/artistic footnotes that no reader could possibly be familiar with without reference to the poet’s life and sources, then good luck to that poet finding a reader willing to work harder than they did. The poet who works hard is the one who makes their solitary existence universal and worth the reader’s effort.

7 responses

  1. Get out of my head! I have had this conversation with many people. There is a reason why poetry has been so disliked for decades. People are scared of it because they are taught to find hidden meanings when they should just embrace the words on the page so they can reveal their beauty in an enjoyable way.

    “The poet who works hard is the one who makes their solitary existence universal and worth the reader’s effort.” – Yes!!

    Excellent post. I’m sharing on Twitter!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I can’t help but dumbly nod in agreement, Patrick. It makes me think of something Vonnegut said… something to the effect that the reader has to restage, light, and costume the writer’s show in their head. Not an easy job! Too many writers too often forget how hard reading actually is. It’s gotten to the point where I sometimes wonder if most writers even know how to read.

    =/

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    • I know I’ve referenced this article already, but this:

      “Why is so much writing so hard to understand? Why must a typical reader struggle to follow an academic article, the fine print on a tax return, or the instructions for setting up a wireless home network?” Found here should go further (inasmuch as fiction writers and poets also suffer from the same flaw).

      “For Pinker, the root cause of so much bad writing is what he calls “the Curse of Knowledge”, which he defines as “a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know. The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose.”

      Bad prose and bad poetry. It’s especially egregious in poetry because the poet simply announces that poetry “is supposed to be difficult” (almost without fail mistaking “difficult” for poorly written) and that it’s not his or her job to imagine themselves in the reader’s place. Of course, I make the assumption that poetry is meant to communicate something, and that poetry has/is its own art as regards communicating ideas. If the poet doesn’t consider “communicate something” as part of their art, then I honestly can’t be bothered reading them.

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  3. Good article! Some salient points make by Pinker there.

    It seems to come back to empathy, as you say, imagining yourself in the reader’s place. I wonder if some artists have simply given up on trying to understand an audience. I get the feeling that many artists create for themselves, and that if other people happen to like or understand it then it’s a bonus. It’s easy to see how consideration for the audience can go out the window when this is taken to an extreme.

    One of the great ironies of language is that a difficult and complex expression is simple to make, while a simple and elegant expression is difficult. I feel that any writer worth their salt must eventually come to grips with this. I think of Blaise Pascal apologizing in a letter to a colleague for the length of his letter, because he didn’t have the time to make it shorter. I just shake my head when I see these absolute bricks for sale in bookstores, most of which seem 100 pages too long. The prolixity of many modern novels seems the perfect companion to the impenetrability of much modern poetry.

    Empathy and irony. There’s a song in there somewhere. Or is it ebony and ivory? Ah well.

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