Recently I bought an expensive poetry magazine (no names no pack drill but it was North London based) and found almost every poem in it impossible to understand. I won’t quote from it for fear of offending individual contributors, but the general tone was typified by a kind of cool insouciance toward the reader. Often starting from a startling title (what they call in the hat trade a “fascinator”?) each experiment seemed to proceed by irrational zig zags, individual lines and images making separate sense but defying emotional or intellectual coherence. A disruption of “normal” syntax and lack of punctuation was part and parcel of the house style. By mistake I had stumbled on an outpost of what might loosely be described as American-influenced “L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E” Poetry. As far as I understand it (and there are volumes of justification, all with respectable academic provenance ) the main idea of the “L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E” Poets was to intrigue and entertain the reader with the surface textures of language, perhaps playing with their linguistic medium in much the same ways that abstract expressionist artists might have used paint. To be “difficult”, to make the reader work at different possibilities, was to that avant-garde school a merit, not an obstacle. (One immediate objection to the idea of words being compared to non-figurative painting is that surely language can never ever be abstract…groups of words will always tend towards significance, meaning?) Having worked for over 40 years as a secondary schoolteacher, trying to get 5th and 6th formers interested in any kind of poetry, it is perhaps not surprising that I’m impatient with poems that appear to relish their obscurities. Yes, of course poetry can often be difficult in many ways; Eliot, Manley Hopkins, Browning and Wallace Stevens are all poets I have struggled with at different times, but ultimately have found to make rewarding sense. I also recognise the possibility of changing one’s mind, gradually “growing into” poets who at first seem off-putting. Luckily from a classroom teacher’s point of view, much 20th century poetry – from the 1960s to the 1980s, Heaney, Larkin, Hughes, Gunn and Harrison, for instance – has been “student friendly”, inviting rather than evasive. I have seen unlikely lads respond enthusiastically to the animal poems of Ted Hughes and roomfuls of trainee hair-dressers enjoy the lyricism and good humour of Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry. As for the American tradition, I would always point students in the direction of Dickinson, Frost, Carlos Williams, Crowe Ransome and Lowell, (and yes, surprisingly, Corso, Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti) rather than the experimental L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E theoreticians of the East Coast. I think what I am trying to say in this blog is that in a world full of communication (and other kinds of) difficulties, such very difficult “far out” experimental poetry is a luxury which only academics can find interesting; to the “ordinary reader” it feels exclusive, makes us feel stupid, shutting us out. To wash the distastefulness of that magazine out of my mind, I’d like to end this piece by quoting as a whole the amusing poem by James Arlington Wright whose long title began this gripe. It has “clear sounds to make”.
Depressed by a book of bad poetry, I walk towards an unused pasture and invite the insects to join me
Relieved, I let the book fall behind a stone.
I climb a slight rise of grass.
I do not want to disturb the ants
Who are walking single file up the fence post,
Carrying small white petals,
Casting shadows so frail that I can see through them.
I close my eyes for a moment and listen.
The old grasshoppers
Are tired, they leap heavily now,
Their thighs are burdened.
I want to hear them, they have clear sounds to make.
Then lovely, far off, a dark cricket begins
In the maple trees.