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Difficult poetry

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Wednesday, Apr 25, 2007

The other day I was complaining about the way we tend to promote the notion that entertainment’s main function is to facilitate self-absorption as a kind of escape. Pop culture often offers vicarious entertainments that are rather undemanding and that flatter us for our limitations, seeming to efface them as we give ourselves over to the entertainment product. In other words, they congratulate us for not thinking.


Having just floated that argument, I found this recent Slate piece by poet Robert Pinsky (a former U.S. poet laureate, if that means anything) serendipitous. He celebrates difficulty, almost for its own sake:


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.


Difficulty, in short, makes accomplishments meaningful and require us to focus our energies rather than dissipate them. But the problem with difficult poetry is not just that it’s hard to understand after a casual breezy read. It’s proudly elitist, in that it rewards those who bring the necessary intellectual capital (the result of time and money investments in education as well as what is inherited from literary-minded parents). Pinsky tries to circumvent this by suggesting that poetry can be enjoyed even if you don’t really understand what the author may have intended (after all, you wouldn’t want to be found guilty of committing the intentional fallacy) and that’s almost seems like claiming you can still enjoy chess just by moving the pieces around the board any which way. But it’s more that he advocates reading poetry as a rewarding process regardless of the end result, provided it’s undertaken with the proper seriousness of intent.


But again we confront a habitus problem—the necessary attitude for the interpretive process is a learned skill, and its rewards are learned rewards—we learn to feel rewarded by certain sorts of insights and conclusions, and what they signal about our intelligence and perceptiveness. Reading difficult poetry is no different from listening to difficult music; it opens one to the accusation of pretentious showing off. The question is whether it is possible to separate the enjoyment one gets from reading the poem from the pleasure given by being recognized for reading it. Can you read poetry without consuming it like a lifestyle product, and if so, does the difficulty of the work have anything, really, to do with the distinction?

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