kinds of difficulty in poetry

Some Characteristics Of Unclear/Difficult/Obscure Poetry:

Purposefully Evading Understanding
The poem was not meant to be clear or to be understood in any conventional sense. Purposefully the poet has crafted something that can’t be parsed or comprehended.
It may have been out of fear that the reader would think the poet thin of mind, or it may be just that the poet resists the notion that poems should be knowable.

It's All There With Enough Time, Effort, And Will
It may take you several hours, days or weeks, years or a lifetime, but nothing in the poem is not stated or has been misexpressed in a way that it can never be comprehended or experienced fully. You might need a bigger dictionary or full encyclopedia set, or the ability to develop the emotional perspicacity of a Colette, but you can get there from here, eventually.

Merely Readerly Failure
The poem is reasonably clear and understandable if the various references and allusions made in the poem can be recognized and grasped. But they can‘t be: (a) Because you have different knowledge set or (b) you have a fairly low level of erudition. The latter is not elitism; it’s a fact that the more you’ve read and studied, the more you’re likely to understand. Some poets prefer to throw a wide net. Others are perfectly happy that only readers of a certain level of knowledge will gain entry to the poem’s fullest sense.

The Translation Or Transference Problem
The poem was perfectly clear in the poet’s mind, but, as rendered, most readers can’t understand it. A translation/transference problem occurred: words as ‘shabby equipment’, or the author’s inability to shape/make the kinds of sentences and language elements that would make the poem understandable across a wide & diverse group of readers

Mimesis Doesn’t Mean Clear
Mimesis of the chaotic or confused: The world is chaotic, life is disorderly and imperfectly understood by the human mind, therefore the poem can or must mirror that disorder and chaos. The jigsaw puzzle spilled, with no attempt made to organize and piece it together.

Pushing Language To Its Limits
With a vast vocabulary and syntactical inventiveness, the poet uses the language in a way that is often hard to follow, difficult to parse or make sense of. Maybe the poet has pulled out all the stops or is pushing the language envelope, so to speak. Think Hart Crane or Gerard Manley Hopkins. Or the way Wallace Stevens feels his way through a poem by thinking based more on sound than sense. Ordinary words can be apt neologisms in the hands of certain poets. Gertrude Stein pressing ordinary rhetoric into the ‘surrhetorical’.

The Attraction Of The Fragmentary And Disjunctive
The aphoristic and imagistic attractiveness of certain sentences and phrases are undeniable. So much so that some poets are content to string these elements together or to splatter them about a page and just let them do what they may in the mind of the reader. Sometimes it’s just enjoyable to cut things up, to collage. To revel in the kaleidoscopic or the ‘kaleidosonic’: the slamdance of words and syllables. To break sentences unexpectedly, to leave the reader hanging on a ledge of words, to practice legerdemain with language.

It’s Ineffable Or Just Too Complicated
The difficulty/obscurity of the subject matter or the psychological state that impelled the poem makes the poem difficult/obscure. The writer intended to be clearer but couldn’t manage it and perhaps no writer will ever be capable of capturing the meaning/essence of ‘it’ in words. The experience is real but ineffable. The emotionally driven lyric flight, or the speaker surrendering to a language rending state that may verge on glossalalia, hysteria, or a speaking in tongues. Or, in fact, the subject matter is too large in scope and too multi-faceted or too deeply layered to ever be captured in language or in the space of a single poem or even a sequence of poems. Think of the poem of America that Whitman almost managed to write.

One Or More Possible Readings
The poem is composed in such a way that perfectly good readers will come away with vastly divergent notions of what the poem is about or trying to get at. No one reading is correct; all readings represent valid interpretations and experiences of the poem. The composition may have been intentionally constructed to expose multiple facets and interpretative aspects. Or it just came out that way. Once the poem enters the public domain, whether the poet intended this is somewhat beside the point; though the poet has a right to be disappointed if his/her preferred interpretation wasn’t carried over to the reader (which is related to translation/transference problem).

Calling Attention To The Materiality of Language
The poem is meant to be an experience of perception, rather than to be understood. The experience being on the level of the materiality of language (sound, alphabetic construct, shape, etc., being foregrounded) and consciously not employing the communicative elements that language offers. Sound poetry, pure poetry, certain forms of language poetry. Of course, many readers may experience it in many ways, which is generally not seen as a deficiency but as an opportunity.


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