2/1/2021 0 Comments
I have been writing about simplicity in poetry (I like it) and about ornamentation as the opposite of simplicity (I like ornamentation too). But I haven’t thought through difficulty, as another opposite of simplicity. The music critic Richard Taruskin believes contemporary composers wilfully make music that is difficult to understand, that its status comes from people not understanding it and so automatically regarding it as great, as beyond their understanding. I’ve often seen this written about contemporary poetry, too, the idea that poetry lost its way with Modernism, becoming an arcane game in which “poets” convinced each other of each other’s greatness by writing things that everyone else suspected had some meaning they themselves couldn’t grasp. I think there is some truth to this, The fact that there is, I think, some truth to this can get in the way of thinking about the value of difficulty not as a kind of fraud (though even the deployment of a fraudulent difficulty can perhaps have an aesthetic value or be used deliberately to offer a kind of numinous pleasure. And it can’t be called fraudulent when poets (or technicians) use computers to generate a randomness that involves, for the reader, the same kind of difficulty of interpretation that perhaps we have come to value, as readers, for its own sake. No one is pretending, perhaps even when poetry is written by people, that the difficulty in constructing a narrative or interpreting symbolism comes from following the poet’s complicated logic, a logic beyond the reader. There isn’t any! But we might like the surprising twists of imagery, the movement from scene to abstraction, the juxtaposition of words or sentences that seem to belong to quite different texts. (Those of us who still like poetry, that is.) But there is another kind of difficulty too. Mozart wrote about his own concertos that they include passages only connoisseurs can fully appreciate, but “the common listener will find them satisfying as well, although without knowing why.” Perhaps this isn’t difficulty so much as complexity. Perhaps this complexity involves difficulty for the composer rather than the listener or reader, or perhaps the complexity itself can be difficult to follow. And there is a difference between the difficulty, or complexity, within the work itself, and the complexity of its relation to a field of practice or a tradition. A composer, or a poet, may be making moves that have a logic in relation to the work that has come before, a poem may allude to another work or to a traditional way of writing sonnets, or the traditional content of a sonnet, as when Sam Sax writes his fourteen word sonnet, a tweet on the subject of spring, time passing, the intensity of personal feeling, and complete with a volta at the end the first eight words as the tween turns towards its conclusion. Or the poem might be complex in itself, using metre for instance in ways that play off traditional metres but with variation or with a new kind of logic or cadence, or it might be complicated in its syntax, or in the way a metaphor extends and unfolds itself over the stanzas. Difficulty isn’t always fraudulent. And it isn’t the worst kind of fraud to be taken in by, either. If you are taken in by what you find in a difficult poem, does it really matter that your appreciation of it might have gone beyond the understanding of the poem’s own composer?
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These are paragraphs without essays or books to go in.