by Sam Buntz
I wish—vainly and with a conscious sense of its unrealizable nature—that poets could have the kind of readership that they once had. The best poetry being written right now is too “difficult” to ever attract that kind of readership – no one is going to sing the songs of John Ashbery, mowing in the fields, lustily pouring forth lines like these, describing the reflections of passersby in wet windows: “A digest of the correct impressions of / Their self-analytical attitudes overlaid by your / Ghostly transparent face.” This does mean something, and I think it’s good poetry, when you break it down…but why do I feel like such a precious snot in writing this? Too much of the difficulty of the poem—one of Ashbery’s best—has risen up from the depths of the lines into their external impression. Its more difficult on the outside then it is on the inside.
Here’s an equally “difficult” set of lines from Robert Frost—“difficult” in the sense that it’s compact with meaning: “The bird would cease and be as other birds / But that he knows in singing not to sing / The question that he frames in all but words / Is what to make of a diminished thing.” Frost’s lines roll off the mental and physical tongues equally well, and his vocabulary is relatively simple—but when we re-read the lines, we become puzzled as to what this bird is actually doing or singing about…it takes a while to understand what it means to “know in singing not to sing.” For the record, Frost means that the song the bird is singing about the dry mid-summer landscape (these lines are from “The Oven Bird”) realizes within itself the meaning of not having anything to sing about, of imaginative poverty. The bird’s song is a defense from and a recognition of that poverty. It may be related to Shelley’s observation that “we make sweetest song out of saddest thought.”
But, going back to Ashbery, his difficulty is concentrated in the surface forms of the words, but not in the basic nature of what’s happening (which isn’t always the case): the speaker is looking in a window and seeing the faces of people on a crowded street. The window is a “digest”—an assortment of short glimpses—of the “correct impressions” formed by people who are analyzing themselves in the same window, with the speaker’s “ghostly transparent face” overlaid on top. The rest of the poem adds to this, obviously (the poem is entitled “Wet Casements”) and it is a powerful poem, once you absorb it, but I couldn’t say in a million years that I preferred it to a poem like “The Oven Bird” or “Directive.” Frost invites the reader into an experience that charms as it mystifies—it has that strange sense-making sound that makes us think we understand the poem before we can actually articulate our understanding of it.
I would say that much great poetry has that quality—at least, in my own experience. I would be impressed, dazzled, and utterly perplexed by lines from Hart Crane’s poems, like these on the Carribean: “And yet this great wink of eternity / Of rimless floods, unfettered leewardings / Of samite sheeted and processioned where / Her undinal vast belly moonward bends / Laughing the rapt inflections of our love.” It certainly means something, and we sense that it does—the same is true for Ashbery, to a lesser degree. The meaning may not be quite as complex as the verbal structures are… Actually, I wouldn’t say that of Crane, but I would say it of Ashbery: too much sauce, too little meat—although what’s there is, as it were, enough.
But, having run through this gauntlet of perplexity, let’s return to consider the simple power of poems you can actually sing. Examples are all over the place, but let’s pick, at random, Blake’s “The Tyger”: “When the stars threw down their spears / And watered heaven with their tears / Did he smile his work to see? / Did he who made the lamb make thee?” These lines could easily be set to music—they almost dictate it. But their meaning is somewhat occult—the common reader is not cheated from a desired density, an abundance of meaning and sense. Likewise for Yeats: “Ah leave me still / A little space for the rose-breath to fill! / Lest I no more hear common things that crave: / The weak worm hiding down in its small cave / The field mouse running beside me on the grass / And heavy mortal hopes that toil and pass.” We are swept up—the surface provides no difficulty, but we soon sense the authentic difficulties of comprehending what the “rose-breath” is. (It happens to be the ever-lingering scent of eternity in the world of time.) The most popular poem in English—Edward Fitzgerald’s “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam”—is full of this kind of accessible difficulty.
It’s not that we require more contrived “popular” poetry – more Maya Angelou and Billy Collins – just poetry that is hermetic without seeming so. (And I don’t feel like a precious snot or a snob saying that – I just mean that no one really likes poetry with impoverished insight and limited verbal acuity—which is just a polite way of shooting fish in a barrel and really meaning “sounds bad and means worse.” And if anyone wants to accuse me of slighting a female black poet out of some hidden, inscrutable animus, I like the poetry of Jay Wright, Robert Hayden, Thylias Moss, and Langston Hughes quite a lot. ) The best poetry is always hermetic—comes out of the cloister and the midnight oil, and is generated by the author’s deep acquaintance with holy solitude, the luminous void—however you might wish to style it. It comes out of difficulty, conflict with one’s self—but there is a lightness, a deftness, in the tone and rhythm that can mitigate the weight. I sense that Dante, with the little to no Italian I know, is the ultimate example of this—channeling an intense personal gnosis (and personal pain begetting that gnosis) into the so-called “vulgar” tongue. In the best folk music of the past fifty years, this is sometimes the case: “Mr. Tambourine Man” is a genuine poem—but especially when it is actually sung. I would not say the same for most of the rap I’ve heard, though the seeds of something authentic may be hidden in the best of it—I’m extremely skeptical.
As Yeats said, the only true folk art needs to go back to Olympus—just as much as all the “high” art does. Perhaps the greatest task—likely not to be undertaken by anyone—is to be Olympian in metaphorical complexity while still possessing a sharp clarity of line. The goal is not to make poetry a populist mob art of no value—like “slam poetry.” The goal is to bring poetry back to music—to get the instincts of heart, head, and tongue—and, well, the whole body, when you bring the dance into it—to all function together at once. That’s the kind of thing poetry should do—probably the most important thing—and it affects everyone accept for the totally dead-in-life. But in order to do it, we need to have just a little of what I have just described—what Yeats called “Unity of Being.” And that isn’t elite in terms of class, but in terms of sensitivity—a hierarchy of nervous systems, or to be less insufferably scientific, of soul. And that unity necessarily embraces worlds beyond the academy—embraces fields and shops and pavement and even, occasionally, cubicles.