July 28, 2008KR BlogUncategorized

Christmas Letdown

Reading Reginald Shepherd’s defense of difficulty in poetry in the summer issue of the Writer’s Chronicle brought me back to something I’ve been waffling about for years: can poetry be difficult syntactically without feeling engineered? I’m sold on difficulty as a good thing–I buy expensive coffee and think it tastes better. I agree with Shepherd that if a poem can be “consumed” in one or two readings, then it’s not substantial enough. I don’t mind not knowing where I am sometimes, letting my eyes adjust, missing references, retracing my path. I enjoy–insist on–doing work as a reader. That’s why I read.

The one thing I hate is feeling steered. I hate thinking that someone has orchestrated a certain maneuver or turn. I hate when people drape sheets. When that happens, I feel like the poem has gone from being my experience to the writer’s. I disengage. What interest me are poems that shake off the writer, that move beyond what the writer intended to say into what the poem needed to say, and that keep that slipperyness no matter how the writer tries to yoke it in revision. I like to think these poems, the ones I love, stay as difficult for the writer as for the reader.

Here’s where I stumble: one component of difficulty Shepherd discusses is syntactical difficulty. And I have been starry-eyed listening to Linda Gregerson talk about cantilevering a sentence, building out the clauses and phrases as each leans just enough on another, the whole thing leaning way out over a canyon–but. How can you build a sentence so elaborate and careful without, well, building it?

While such a creation is beautiful to me, it’s also distancing because the syntactical complexity feels impressive but not necessary. I’m not suggesting that all sentences be uniform, short, beady little things. A little complexity does wonders for tilting, slowing, pivoting. But when I have to keep reading back through a sentence, peering over the shrubbery to find my subject and verb so that I can then find all the rest of their cousins and aunts, I feel more like a student than a reader.

But what has kept me knitting at this for years is that I don’t understand the other side yet. I know I’m missing something. Maybe I’m too biased towards the subconscious as a poetic driver–maybe a little purposefulness doesn’t have to pare down the fruit of a poem. It could well be that I’m just not a nimble enough reader, or a practiced enough writer (or the other way around). Whatever it is, I can’t seem to find a way to be anything but distracted and distanced by difficult syntax in poetry. Can difficult syntax arise naturally, can it fight off the writer’s limited intentions, or by sculpting a convoluted sentence does the writer inevitably subdue the poem into a parse-able matter?