post on "difficult" poetry

by on Apr.30, 2011

I’m posting a comment I made a few days ago about “difficult” art, and I’ll have more to add soon. This runs along the lines of some other my other posts…Art as surface, a play of intensities, and against essences and allegory (at least allegories that govern/regulate meaning, as opposed to multiplying meaning, as in the schizophrenic allegorical elements in, say, Gravity’s Rainbow) and totalizing/dialectical movements…Art outside the strategies of new criticism and its many offspring….


One of the things I like about certain types of “difficult” experimental writing as opposed to a great deal of “accessible” writing is that I actually find experimental writing in a way easier to read specifically because it usually doesn’t ask me to perform an act of “close” reading to get to the kernel of truth in the text (in the usual sense of that word).

Even in a great deal of language writing, which I’m sometimes very critical about, there is a surface effect, the play of the signifier, but no depth to figure out, no Meaning under the surface. That’s one of the elements of Language writing I actually do like and respond to…

“Easier to read” might not be the right term here: it’s a different way of experiencing a text…

For example: isn’t the supposedly difficult John Cage really about a kind of vigilant ease?

I would argue that a great deal of experimental writing moves closer to music than to argument…the “difficulty” is its refusal to draw even the thinnest of lines between style and content…

Or the difference between a Bolano short story and one by Carver…both have an undercurrent of dread/menace, but in Bolano that is because it is the way of Bolano’s world, menace has no cause nor explanation, whereas in Carver there is something in the landscape of the story itself that appears to be causing this unease, we just need the key, the root cause of this dread…

The psychological Carver in contrast with the existentially unmoored Bolano…

10 comments for this entry:
  1. Kent Johnson

    I just saw this. OK, it’s fine of course, if one prefers staying on surfaces, there’s great art in all mediums that allows for this, and hooray for Clement Greenberg. But I don’t see anything here, James, that convincingly posits a greater axiological weight for the “difficult,” over and against the “accessible.” There is much accessible art that is quite complex and subtle. I think there needs to be a more careful definition of what is meant by “accessible.” For example, Bolano is every bit as accessible, as realist and narrative in his prose as Carver! The total affect of his writing is certainly different, but that difference has to do with vision, scope, and ambition, not structures of surface. Something like the difference between Frederic Church and some minor Hudson School painter who never left the Adirondacks… Which is a way of saying, I guess, that one can achieve profoundly innovative effects by using perfectly conventional instruments. Pessoa is another example: Alberto Caeiro is one of the great avant-garde expressions is 20th century world literature, but he’s as clear and transparent as a glass of purified water.

  2. Carlos Rowles

    Interesting concept … the comparison to music is apt since we can engage with music at various degrees of “closeness” … and Finnegans Wake for instance or the Cantos open up in new ways when read quickly and lightly … also perhaps check this

  3. Kent Johnson

    >not structures of surface

    By which I mean the conventional syntax and hypotactic language each employs (Carver and Bolano).

    Take any New Narrative writer of your choice, where surface experiment is all to the point. Many of them are very interesting, but are any as great a writer as Bolano? I hope we’d agree that no…

  4. James Pate

    Hi Kent,

    Clement Greenberg? Really?

    I know what you’re getting at, but there’s a much wider and more interesting debate about “surfaces” that relates to both Deleuze (who saw in “depths” a backdoor pass for all sorts of Platonic influences, hence his interest in POP philosophy, his distrust of the image of the tree with its roots as the western symbol for knowledge) and of course Derrida (whose very act of deconstruction is premised on there being nothing but the “surface” of the text, no transcendental signifiers, no hidden ontological sleights of hand).

    When I talk about surface Greenberg’s neo-Kantian arguments are the last thing on my mind…

    “one can achieve profoundly innovative effects by using perfectly conventional instruments”: here I very much agree with you. Countless others come to mind: Sebald, Javier Marias, Danilo Kis, Johnathan Littell…

    But we read a Carver story in a profoundly different manner than Bolano. And again this goes back to a “realist” conception of character, among other things. Bolano’s characters are like Kafka’s characters in a sense: they have little or no back story, no deeply engrained “conflict,” no overwhelming self-consistency. We can’t discuss them in the same manner we discuss a Carver character: they’re too shadowy, too shape-shifting….

    When I read a Carver story, I always get the sense that I’m meant to “figure it out” in a manner of speaking. That it is written with the intention of having the reader do (at least a shorthand) close reading.

    With Bolano, I never get that sense…if anything, his writing is too lucid, too apparent for such a reading…The “mystery” isn’t in the story, its an expression of the story itself…like certain Surrealist paintings.


  5. Kent Johnson

    James, thanks for the response, a good one.

    I meant the Greenberg thing with a smile, really. I am aware there are different ways of thinking about surface and such and that there’s been much more since. And I don’t much care for Greenberg, actually–important a figure as he is in the bigger frame. Part of the problem in all this, in fact, IS the frame- effect, considerations of “surface” having often very much to do with conventions of framing and its broader entanglements…

    And I don’t disagree with anything you say about Carver and Bolano differences. Very well put. And it’s what I was trying to say, in my awkward way– that genres, forms, or modes of rhetorical address can be put to different uses and aims. One doesn’t need to be “avant-garde” in *form* to be in, or on, the advance, though “advance” is a problem-term, as well, I realize.

  6. James Pate

    Hi Kent,

    I agree. I’ve become more and more skeptical of the very term “experimental” on just this point. Bolano offers another great example. By the conventions of a great deal of “experimental” writing he isn’t experimental at all. He doesn’t even have footnotes or meta-fictional asides, etc. But there’s something incredibly fresh about his writing, his sensibility, that, to me at least, really does feel new and surprising. He doesn’t fit into any constellation easily, but maybe that’s one of the things that makes his work so intriguing…


  7. James Pate

    One quick thought: one of the things I like about Deleuze and Guattari is how they find links betweens, say, Artaud and Woolf, or Whitman and Proust. Or, in painting, Deleuze’s comparison of Bacon to the flesh and sinew of Michaelangelo. By scrambling the usual categories they create an act (even if on a mirco-scale) of “deterritorializtion” in-itself.

  8. Josef Horáček

    Why do readers find some texts difficult? Is it because the text seems to require a certain kind of reading they feel unable to perform? Or to put it another way, the text resists the reader’s customary way of reading? Obversely, certain texts may appear accessible simply because the reader has been trained to read them. In other words, accessibility is a product of an effort and the subsequent forgetting of that effort.

    Another thought: Sometimes readers consider certain texts to be difficult because they had been told they were difficult. What keeps readers from saying “to hell with it” and making the text their own, subjecting it to their own way of reading? I suspect the history of scriptural exegesis may have something to do with it (I’m thinking mainly of Christianity, but it may be applicable to other organized religions). How many Derridas would it take to drown out the preacher at your local church?

  9. James Pate

    I agree, Josef. Strangely, a very allegorical way of reading has taken hold due to the influence of New Criticism, plus the way lit. and art tends to get taught at school. A text as a riddle to figure out, a sort of linguistic math problem…

    When I’ve taught Ashbery in the past, many students get frustrated because they want to read his work as allegory…as being REALLY about X or Z. It’s not their fault of course. Many have had years of being taught to read in this manner by the time they reach college.

    There’s also a political dimension to this…there’s something “difficult” about a text that doesn’t ask us to figure it out, that doesn’t tell us how we should be thinking about the images, or doesn’t even bother to “earn” its images, something that goes against the basic capitalist assumption that efficiency is in all cases the best form of communication.

  10. Contamination (#52): “New American Cinema” and Genre - Montevidayo

    […] of the artwork, that it overdetermines it, that it makes stereotypes rather than psychology, depth. This makes me think back to James Pate’s statement a while ago comparing Carver and Bolano: Or the difference between a Bolano short story and one by Carver…both have an undercurrent of […]