Monday, April 14, 2008

Forum Thread: Does the Difficulty of Modern Poetry Mask Its Underlying Superficiality?

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.


  1. I haven't read Mr. Shepherd's article, but this post certainly highlights the subjective nature of poetry, indeed, of all art. First, define 'difficult'. “Dick and Jane” would be somewhat difficult for a 2 year old, Shakespeare for a 10th grader. What makes something difficult? Is it puzzling language and obscure references or are they but a result of the reader’s level of education? Is difficulty a reflection of the exquisite depth and insight of a poet or their inability to communicate well? The purpose of poetry, after all, is to communicate. If a poem makes no sense to, or connection with, a reader, what's the point? One might as well speak Arabic in China. But then that also depends on the reader, doesn't it? Again, define difficult.
    I personally find this question particularly intriguing. My entire poetic style has been based (due to influence by Taoism) on trying to describe the profound and incomprehensible with intentionally simple (though poetic) language. You suggest here that some use language to do the exact opposite. I couldn't agree more, however...I occasionally use some scientific terminology in my poems. Many who focus solely on literature may be somewhat unknowledgeable about many aspects of Science simply because it isn't their field. Does this make my poetry 'difficult' or is the reader just ignorant?
    I pose another question: If a poem containing references with which one is not familiar impedes its appreciation and results in its abandonment, is this a failed poem? Shouldn’t the reader be motivated to research the references in order to more fully appreciate the poem? On the other hand, although poetry should have some pedagogic value, of course, does anyone (not in school) have that much time these days? Do I have to study the history of Northern Ireland to enjoy “Bloody Sunday” by the band U2? Is the purpose of poetry to enrich our lives through pleasure or through knowledge? Or are they the same thing for some?
    Regarding poetry challenging the reader, sometimes I want to concentrate and focus, but sometimes I just want to have fun and relax. I think we have room for John Coltrane AND Pete Seeger (and Willie Nelson, Mozart and the Rolling Stones, as well, for that matter).

  2. Thanks, Gary, you offer some good insights.

    Defining art IS tricky and is often in the eye of the beholder.


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