At more or less any given time in Blogland, someone will be huffing and puffing on the subject of ‘difficult’ poetry. There are two approaches.
The first comes from those who believe ‘difficult’ poetry is a necessary antidote to a dumbed-down culture. In any case, they say, there’s nothing difficult about ‘difficult’ poetry. You just need to learn how to read it. They believe strongly in the ability of words to transcend their strictures – grammatical, syntactical, or otherwise – and can, at times, be contemptuous of poems that don’t attempt such innovation, which means more or less all ‘mainstream’ poetry.
The second approach is from those who believe ‘difficult’ poetry to be a bad thing. They argue that poetry has become an obscure and bewildering academic artform, remote from general experience. This obscurity, they say, is largely to blame for poetry’s (allegedly) tiny audience. They support poetry which is straightforward, clear, and can be easily understood. They condemn people who have little tolerance for this ‘easy’ poetry, and may call them elitist, snobby, or exclusive (i.e. they show little tolerance themselves). They often dismiss poems and poets who don’t fit their norm, which will, ironically, include many poets their opponents think of as entirely mainstream.
I was thinking about this when reading Anna Evans’s thoughtful post on Archibald MacLeish’s ars poetica. In the course of that discussion, Anna cites a poem recently published in the New Yorker, Alien vs Predator by Michael Robbins. It’s worth taking a look at. It’s easy and ultimately self-defeating to talk on this subject in generalities, but a real poem might focus attention.
This poem, to me, doesn’t seem particularly experimental. I think we can be sure that Ron Silliman, for example, would throw this one into the ‘School of Quietude’ pile. However, I’m equally sure that for someone who had read only a limited range of poetry, it would be quite bewildering. It does bewilder me, to an extent, although I’m sure that’s one of its intended effects. The title, referencing the movie of the same name, relates only slightly (if at all) to the poem. That reminds me of Ashbery and others, who do the same – a fun (yawn, some might think) exercise in discontinuity.
The poem is fragmented. The narrator appears to be some kind of deity, but not the traditional type – a self-centred, contemptuous little shit, prone to unexpected violence, incarnate as much in a cigarette as in the New York Times itself. The tone is playful and cynical. The world is a commodity, a spectacle; the Tibetans are released in front of ‘Best Buy’, but the freak show to follow doesn’t turn up, to the narrator’s displeasure. The absurdity of the images is like a commentary on the world, as if life is a reality TV show set in a Victorian asylum. The deity is angry at ‘Rilke…the jerk’ for denying him his right to be praised, and echoes the phrase with ‘that elk is such a dick.’ The deity seeds the ionosphere and translates the Bible into Dinosaur. The juxtapositions are humorous and serve to undermine anything that might confer serious meaning.
In some ways, I enjoyed the poem. But I think it’s simply a mirror of other poems, a very standard way of looking at the world. There’s no challenge, nothing unusual being said, despite the superficial weirdness of its imagery. ‘The world is absurd, authority is there only to be shot down, political causes are commodities, and as for newspapers, cigarettes, gods, they all come to the same thing, which isn’t much.’ I don’t believe the poem can be summed up like that – at least, that would be unfair, but it does reflect such a prevalent world-view and, like most art that reflects this prevalent world-view, knocks down a few once-sacred cows (these days, this approach feels like shooting at an animal already caught in a trap) and is content simply to do that.
Having said that, I liked much of the absurdity. The rhythms and rhymes were handled well. I enjoyed the ride, I suppose. Some of the images intrigued me, some of them made me laugh – ‘the space tree/ making a ski and a little foam chiropractor’ for example, and ‘The sandhill cranes make brains look easy’ and ‘I’d eat your bra – point being – in a heartbeat.’ The slit monkeys, the Bible, the Best Buy and whale on stilts, the names, the sleeping on meat – all of these are ingenious images. In short, I enjoyed many, perhaps most, of the fragments. Put them together and I can make certain connections, but what have I got in the end? The poem may, in itself, be suggesting that it doesn’t matter, that nothing matters really. Well, thanks for that…
But as for being ‘difficult’… Difficult for whom? I would be really interested to know what people think of this poem – positive or negative viewpoints.
I found an interview with Michael Robbins here, which may or may not shed light on his method. I do enjoy much of Frederick Seidel’s work, who Robbins also seems to admire.