In 2008, The Writer's Chronicle published a timely article: "On Difficulty in Poetry," by Reginald Shepherd. In his introduction, Mr. Shepherd says, "It's been the fashion at least since the Modernists to complain that contemporary poetry has become difficult, and that this difficulty has alienated the readers who used to flock to poetry as they now flock to John Grisham novels and American Idol" (8).
Then he refers to enduring difficult poets of the past: Shakespeare and Donne--though I would contend that these poets were not considered difficult back when they were writing their plays and poems. They're considered difficult now because their works are written in English not commonly used today.
Shepherd believes that poetry ought to challenge the reader and that total understanding of a poem is not necessary. Sometimes it's enough to appreciate the language, allusions, and structure, even when meaning eludes. He even says, "...the poem that alludes frequently eludes" (10). In other words, meaning is secondary to how a reader experiences a poem, intellectually, emotionally, and sensually.
Up to this point, I agree. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is definitely an elusive poem worth reading and rereading and pondering because underneath all the fancy language, allusions, metaphors, there is substance, a universality of human experience and mortality.
However, as I read some modern poems, I get the distinct feeling that they hide their underlying superficiality behind difficult language--that a poet's walk down Fifth Avenue, during which his contemplation of his grocery list has been interrupted by an ill-timed bomb by an overhead bird will not be enhanced by complicated allusions to Prometheus.
Shepherd says, "Poems considered difficult often allude to material outside the common literary or intellectual frame of reference. Modern poetry is particularly difficult in its wide range and idiosyncratic, often inexplicit, deployment of allusion" (13).
Perhaps that is debatable; what I see in modern poetry is a tendency toward sameness, a flat affect, a self-indulgent contemplation about nothing masked by high-toned literary language: all style, little substance.
The question posed here: "Does the Difficulty of Modern Poetry Mask Its Underlying Superficiality?"
Feel free to comment.
Shepherd, Reginald. The Writer's Chronicle," May/Summer 2008, Vol. 40, Number 6, 8-14.
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