Reading the Difficulties: Dialogues with Contemporary American Innovative Poetry

Reading the Difficulties: Dialogues with Contemporary American Innovative Poetry

by Thomas Fink

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The bold essays that make up Reading the Difficulties offer case studies in and strategies for reading innovative poetry.

Definitions of what constitutes innovative poetry are innumerable and are offered from every quarter. Some critics and poets argue that innovative poetry concerns free association (John Ashbery), others that experimental poetry is a

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The bold essays that make up Reading the Difficulties offer case studies in and strategies for reading innovative poetry.

Definitions of what constitutes innovative poetry are innumerable and are offered from every quarter. Some critics and poets argue that innovative poetry concerns free association (John Ashbery), others that experimental poetry is a “re-staging” of language (Bruce Andrews) or a syntactic and cognitive break with the past (Ron Silliman and Lyn Hejinian). The tenets of new poetry abound.

But what of the new reading that such poetry demands? Essays in Reading the Difficulties ask what kinds of stances allow readers to interact with verse that deliberately removes many of the comfortable cues to comprehension—poetry that is frequently nonnarrative, nonrepresentational, and indeterminate in subject, theme, or message.

Some essays in Thomas Fink and Judith Halden-Sullivan’s collection address issues of reader reception and the way specific stances toward reading support or complement the aesthetic of each poet. Others suggest how we can be open readers, how innovative poetic texts change the very nature of reader and reading, and how critical language can capture this metamorphosis. Some contributors consider how the reader changes innovative poetry, what language reveals about this interaction, which new reading strategies unfold for the audiences of innovative verse, and what questions readers should ask of innovative verse and of events and experiences that we might bring to reading it.

Charles Bernstein / Carrie Conners / Thomas Fink /
Kristen Gallagher / Judith Halden-Sullivan / Paolo Javier /
Burt Kimmelman / Hank Lazer / Jessica Lewis Luck /
Stephen Paul Miller / Sheila E. Murphy / Elizabeth Robinson /
Christopher Schmidt / Eileen R. Tabios

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“The question of how to read difficult poetry (in this case, poetry written explicitly in the Modernist, or avant-garde, tradition) is a familiar subject, so a volume of this kind is a significant contribution to the field.” — Joel Bettridge, author of Reading as Belief: Language Writing, Poetics, Faith

“One of the strongest aspects of this project is the inclusion of critical assessments of very new work, such as Kristen Gallagher’s on Tan Lin’s Seven Controlled Vocabularies. This high standard of contemporaneousness is how and where I set my mark as I read across the essays.” — Alan Filreis, author of Counter-Revolution of the Word: The Conservative Attack on Modern Poetry, 1945-1960

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University of Alabama Press
Publication date:
Modern & Contemporary Poetics Series
Edition description:
1st Edition
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

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Reading the Difficulties

Dialogues with Contemporary American Innovative Poetry

By Thomas Fink, Judith Halden-Sullivan


Copyright © 2014 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-5752-8


Reading the Difficulties

Thomas Fink and Judith Halden-Sullivan

In the soothing (and parodie) voice of the self-help guru, Charles Bernstein reassures readers in his "The Difficult Poem" that "Difficult poems are normal. They are not incoherent, meaningless, or hostile" (Attack of the Difficult Poems 4). He also helps readers identify whether they have encountered a difficult poem by providing a handy checklist of five questions. This checklist asks the reader whether he or she is struggling with hard-to-understand vocabulary and syntax or feeling "inadequate or stupid" as a reader. But the checklist concludes with a question of transformation: "Is your imagination being affected by the poem?" (Attack 4). While funny and frequently self-deprecating as a creator, teacher, and critic of difficult poetry, Bernstein tips his hand with this final question. There is much more to the experience of "difficult" verse than deciphering non-traditional surface features.

What is a "difficult" poem? Certainly difficult poems have always been with us. Listen to students of literature; they find poetry daunting, regardless of time period and prosody. The work of Emily Dickinson can be "difficult" with its spare metaphoric compression. The tapestries of cultural referents in both Eliot's and Pound's verse also can be "difficult." But what difficulty characterizes contemporary innovative American poetry? According to Marjorie Perloff, this poetry is so challenging that much critical discourse either "dismisses the new work out of hand as simply too opaque, obscure, and disorganized to reward any kind of sustained attention" or emphasizes the work's relation to "a particular theory or an alternate discourse" and thus sidesteps the poem itself (Differentials xix). The contributors to Reading the Difficulties—both academics and non-academics, many of them poets—eschew such critical misdirection. Through readings and responses that are both typical and atypical of interpretive essays, they ponder what sort of stances open up readers to verse that deliberately removes comfortable cues that lead to comprehension. They seek to characterize the aesthetics of reception for innovative poetry, and they frequently encourage encounters with innovative verse in ways commensurate with their poetics. As Bruce Andrews claims, "A writing that is itself a 'wild reading' solicits wild reading" (Paradise & Method 54-55). The contributors to this volume probe what such readings might be and how reading innovative verse might in manifold ways be "re-staged" to borrow Andrews's verb ("Poetry as Explanation" 670).

The "difficult" verse of the following poets inspires the writing of our contributors: Ron Silliman, Hank Lazer, Charles Bernstein, Tan Lin, Sheila E. Murphy, John Bloomberg-Rissman, Harryette Mullen, Stephen Ratcliffe, Myung Mi Kim, Lisa Robertson, Tom Beckett, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, bpNichol, and Lisa Jarnot. Some of these poets are considered Language poets, others can be classified as Conceptual poets, and the rest might be broadly characterized by the catch-all descriptor "post-Language" Even in such a diverse group, their common difficulty may stem from their resistance to expectations for a relatively unified vision of dominant cultural values. They avoid expressivist cohesion; rarely in their poetry does a single unified self lend coherence. Instead many selves may compete for attention, and, if a distinctive self appears, it quickly morphs into something other. Innovative difficult verse also is frequently non-narrative and not personally disclosive in a confessional sense; however, private references drawn from lived experiences of worlds may abound. As Bernstein asserts, "difficult" poetry "may actually provide a good deal more immediacy and affect than much of the more 'I am my subject matter and don't you forget it' variety" ("Poetry Scene Investigation" Attack 245). In addition, difficulties in contextualization mark innovative poems—not that they are devoid of context; instead the collaging of multiple contexts invites unexpected context-building. Innovative verse problematizes referentiality to deliver worlds in abundance; it's not the "death" of the referent, per se, but "rather a recharged use of the multivalent referential vectors that any word has" (Bernstein, "Semblance" Content's Dream 34). Innovative verse's difficulty is hardly formlessness; instead, especially in the cases of Conceptual, concrete, and Oulipo poetries, it is often driven by experimentation and play with acknowledged prosodies and formulae. As Oulipian-influenced poet Christian Bok explains, the innovative poem "makes a Sisyphean spectacle of its labor, willfully crippling its language in order to show that, even under such improbable conditions of duress, language can still express an uncanny, if not sublime, thought" (qtd. in The /n/oulipian Analects 76). Here "sublime" is a surprising Romantic retrofit that evokes transformative experiences with language.

What is perhaps most difficult about difficult innovative poetry is its relation to language—its commitment to experiences with language that valorize the unexpected, not the accessible. Language poet Bruce Andrews explains that what motivates difficult innovative poetry is a demand "for a social, political dimension in writing—embracing concern for a public, for community goods, for overall comprehension & transformation" that, in turn, "intersects an overall concern for language as a medium: for the conditions of its makings of meaning, significance or value, & sense" ("Poetry as Explanation, Poetry as Praxis" 669). Transparency, Andrews qualifies, "will not be found in words. That classical ideal is an illusion—one which recommends that we repress the process of production or cast our glance away"; instead Andrews pursues "a poetry that is a reading which acknowledges, or faces up to, its material base as a rewriting of the language" (669-670). Like the difficult post-Language poets with whom he shares kinship, Andrews seeks to enact "formal celebration, a playful infidelity, a certain illegibility within the legible" (670). In other words, Andrews posits the "re-staging" of language in verse to lay bare its methods of signification. Such verse does not provide an "extension of the dominant values in American culture," but instead offers multiple alternatives, alternatives that are "often messy, inchoate, disturbing, unhappy—indeed sometimes worse—alternatives to boot" (Bernstein, "Poetry Scene Investigation" Attack 243).

To warn readers of the "tendency to idealize the accessible poem," Bernstein demonstrates the danger by writing one ("The Difficult Poem" Attack 5). Initially published in Girly Man (2006) and reprinted to set the tone for this anthology, Charles Bernstein's wickedly hilarious poem, "Thank You for Saying Thank You," marshals an opening defense of "the difficulties" by satirizing the pseudo-populist position that poetry must provide simple, direct, reassuring, and emotionally predicable communication—which is allegedly regarded as respect and appreciation for the audience—to become effective and prove its value. Purveying a double-voiced discourse that damns intellectual difficulty, abstraction, supercilious elitism, and perverse deviations from a "common speech" or "plain style" norm, Bernstein invites readers to consider how such prescriptive and prescriptive attitudes result in dangerous foreclosures. For example, as much of Bernstein's other poetry—as well as work considered by the contributors herein—demonstrates, such condemnation of "theory" and "abstraction" is based on questionable, problematically abstract, untested theories that see writing as the transparent representation of speech with a direct connection to feelings. This theory would hold that those feelings are accessible, as though the unconscious has no force. Further, this belief would ignore whatever brings into question both the emotional coherence of a "self" and its full "communication" with other "selves." Bernstein demonstrates that to "banish" difficulty while promoting the illusion of transparent referentiality is to settle for self-congratulation, reciprocal flattery, and sometimes, shared social prejudice. Does pandering constitute respect? Can't reader and "difficult" writer establish a sense of mutual trust and respect based on the values of expansive imagination and cognitive/ affective/social exploration?

These questions motivate the catalogue of declarations and manifestos that were written between the "first utopian, radical, optimistic phase" of "the Modernist era"—during which, as Marjorie Perloff asserts, "the great literary inventions of our time—collage, simultaneity, free verse and verse-prose combinations, genre-mixing, indeterminacy of image and syntax—were born" ("Modernism Now")—and the present. To cite a very partial list, such efforts to define the decidedly "difficult" relationships among poets, readers, and language—in other words, American innovative poetics—include: Olson's dictums in "Projective Verse" about the breath, spacing, and the movement of perception; New York School icon John Ashbery's commentary about the poem as a reproduction of "the polyphony that goes on inside [the poet]," reflecting the fact that "one is constantly changing one's mind and thereby becoming something slightly different" (390); Language poet Ron Silliman's delineation of The New Sentence; Lyn Heijinian's commitment to "escape within the sentence ... a medium of arrivals and departures" (Language 195-196); poetic formulae by Conceptual and Oulipo practitioners as described in The /n/oulipian Analects; and Mark Wallace's assertion that "[t]he primary value of postlanguage poetry is its ability to extend a fundamental theoretical insight of the language poets—that language constitutes and is constituted by cultural production—to a growing array of possibilities for poetry." Writing the difficulties and reading the difficulties both enact the difficult poetic text, whatever its form—electronic, hard-copy, or multimedia (text accompanied by art and music)—as event: a dynamic, spontaneous experience of language, without monolithic meaning, bountiful in terms of interpretative possibilities, often political but not hegemonic, decentered, sometimes multivocal—a moment in thought in which "re-staged" language permits the experience of what is not obvious.

Tenets of "new," difficult poetry abound, but what of "new" reading? One persistent attribute of difficult poetry is the interpretive leeway it permits its readers as co-creators. Reader response theorists of the 1970s and 1980s asserted this notion about readers—now a commonplace in contemporary aesthetics. According to Wolfgang Iser, since the text offers "various perspectives," the reader can "relate the patterns and the 'schematized views' to one another" and thus set "the work in motion" (275). Works of literature "lead" the reader "to shade in the many outlines suggested by the given situations, so that these take on a reality of their own" though it is "the reader's imagination" that animates "these 'outlines'" (276). For example, a retrospective comprehension of temporal structure, "the product of the reader's mind working on" the work's "raw material," can yield the text's "potential multiplicity of connections" (278). "Each individual reader," Iser holds, "will fill in the gaps in his own way, thereby excluding the various other possibilities" (280).

About the same time that Iser, Jane Tompkins, David Bleich, and Stanley Fish, building on the earlier work of Louise Rosenblatt, were developing reader-response perspectives, Language poets utilized reader-centered rhetoric to champion contemporary experimental work. In a 1981 essay originally given as a talk, Charles Bernstein valorizes the kind of "text" that "calls upon the reader to be actively involved in the process of constituting its meaning" because it "formally involves the process of response/interpretation and in so doing makes the reader aware of himself or herself as producer as well as consumer of meaning" ("Writing and Method" 595). The insistence that perception must be accompanied by "interpretation" is brought "into view rather than" exploited "passively" through deletion of "its tracks" In the oft-cited 1985 essay "The Rejection of Closure," Lyn Hejinian criticizes the coerciveness of the "closed text ... in which all the elements of the work are directed toward a single reading of the work" (270) and valorizes "the open text," which "invites participation, rejects the authority of the writer over the reader and thus, by analogy, the authority implicit in other (social, economic, and cultural) hierarchies" (272). She also supports the development of "a reader/ writer collaboration" from the evolution of "ideas and meanings" (272).

Hejinian and Bernstein's ideas seem to indicate that the reader's authority over her reading has much to do with what the writer does in the first place to facilitate the exercise of that power. In the aforementioned essay "The Difficult Poem"—which is modeled on typical treatises about "difficult" children, parents, bosses, co-workers et al.—Bernstein acknowledges that the reader may take the poet's offer of "liberation" as quite the opposite. However, as a pseudo-therapist and an actual professor of poetry, Bernstein believes that the reader who sets aside his or her preconceptions and prejudices can benefit from the encounter with "difficulty" Bernstein writes: "The difficulty you are having with the poem may suggest that there is a problem not with you the reader nor with the poem but with the relation between you and the poem," and in fact, "learning to cope with a difficult reading of a poem will often be more fulfilling than sweeping difficulties under the carpet" (Attack 5). Even if the glibness of his persona elicits mistrust, Bernstein implies that a reader willing to work on this "relationship" can gain a sense of empowerment that enables critical receptivity—one that is not necessarily "conversion" or bowing to a superior authority. Difficult poems instead invite readers to play; they encourage "a willingness to jump into the middle of the flow of experience" just as one encounters "that other world we sometimes call everyday life" (Bernstein, "Poetry Scene Investigation" Attack 252).

So how do we read the difficult poem? Bernstein advises that readers start by getting "the hang" of the poem rather than try to figure it out; "obscure references" can be pondered later ("Poetry Scene Investigation" Attack 250). This need not be an atomized, private experience. In her study Everybody's Autonomy (2001), Juliana Spahr focuses on difficult work that encourages connections to "large, public worlds that are in turn shared with readers" (4); she is involved in "deciphering ... what sorts of communities [these] works encourage" (5). Spahr characterizes contemporary innovative poetry as distinct from modernist verse in its pursuit of "work that is public and yet at the same time nonappropriative ... a move to share authority with readers and an accompanying abandoning of authorial privilege" (Autonomy 53). While she makes a case for reader-centered verse as the most democratic and empowering, Spahr's commentary is hardly utopian, as she makes clear in calling "freedom ... impossible to even imagine as a concept related to reading (and even the most utopian rhetoric in language writing merely envisions form guiding toward a sort of localized emancipation for the individual reader ...)"; instead she identifies "connection" as "the crucial value," along with "generative thinking" (59). Spahr articulates carefully those "connections" in her book, but she is not particularly direct about possibilities innovative texts create for readers' "generative thinking."

Like Spahr, Erica Hunt in "Notes for an Oppositional Poetics" looks at the interrelationship between difficult writing and the community. Hunt sees in the interpretations of discrete, often oppositional communities a "contiguity" (qtd. in Hinton 2); she locates the interconnections among these various audiences for innovative verse, and then defines common ground in their responses. Laura Hinton and Cynthia Hogue, editors of the 2002 collection We Who Love to Be Astonished: Experimental Women's Writings and Performance Poetics, use Hunt's approach for their anthology because it "suggests new reading and writing practices" that acknowledge commonality and yet maintain and respect various groups' oppositions. This fosters "a broadening sense of community"(2). Hinton and Hogue see their text as creating a "capillary network" that weaves together diverse discourses to "reframe the way in which we speak about the avant-garde in general" (12).


Excerpted from Reading the Difficulties by Thomas Fink, Judith Halden-Sullivan. Copyright © 2014 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS.
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