Friday, 20 December 2013

Why is Poetry so Difficult?

King James said of John Donne’s poetry that it is ‘Like the peace of God — it passeth all understanding.’ Even now, four hundred years later, many people find Donne, and indeed poetry in general, ‘difficult’, and so avoid it. ‘If they can’t say what they mean and mean what they say in ways us lesser mortals can understand, then to hell with them’.

But there are good reasons why poetry — real, good poetry — is difficult. Two of the essential qualities of poetry are concentration — using as few words as possible — and operation at the borders of language: finding new ways to use words, so as to say things that could not be said with a more straightforward use of language. Of course, that breeds charlatans, who write pretentious incomprehensible rubbish, and even get published, paid, and praised on the emperor’s new clothes principle — those who don’t understand it pretend they do lest they be thought philistine. And there are the dangers that a pioneering poet might stray too far into unknown territory and lose his readership, and the opposite one that in an attempt to be ‘accessible’ he writes mere trivial verse. There are also those (like myself, but also like William Empson, a very fine poet) who use their poems to show off arcane knowledge. But a good poet will usually try to be as clear as possible, even though he is trying to say things that have not been, indeed could not have been, said before.

If nothing else comes up before then, I’ll go through an example or two tomorrow.

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