I was AWOL yesterday because Attack of the Difficult Poems by Charles Berstein arrived from the library and I had to start reading right away. So far I am loving this book! Admittedly I haven’t read all that many essays yet and somewhere in the middle things could go horribly awry, but so far so good!
I want to tell you about the first essay, “The Difficult Poem.” It is a tongue-in-cheek essay to help readers identify a difficult poem, provide a bit of therapy, and offer advice on how to approach reading a difficult poem.
Berstein provides a handy checklist for identifying a difficult poem:
- Do you find the poem hard to appreciate?
- Do you find the poem’s vocabulary and syntax hard to understand?
- Are you often struggling with the poem?
- Does the poem make you feel inadequate or stupid as a reader?
- Is your imagination being affected by the poem?
If you answer yes to any of the questions, chances are you are reading a difficult poem. But in case you aren’t completely sure other things to look out for include symptoms of “elevated linguistic intensity; textual irregularities; initial withdrawal (poem not immediately available); poor adaptability (poem not suitable for use in love letters, memorial commemoration, etc.); sensory overload; or negative mood.”
When encountering a difficult poem, Berstein says, the thing to do is not ask “why me?” however much that might be your first instinct. This is a common problem and you are not alone. Nor should you wonder about whether you are somehow inadequate. Instead, recognize that the difficulty of the poem has nothing to do with you, you are not to blame, difficult poetry is not your fault.
What we need to know is that difficult poems are normal. There is nothing wrong with a difficult poem, it is not abnormal. Remember that difficult and abnormal are two very different things. Difficult poems are difficult because that’s just how they are. And yes, they are hard to read but don’t let them intimidate you. Part of the objective of a difficult poem is to be provoking and sometimes this is how they get your attention and when you give a poem your full attention then sometimes really marvelous things happen.
When we stop blaming ourselves and the poem, we can then get to work on our relationship. Because Bernstein thinks that poetry, especially difficult poetry, is all about relationship. You and the poem need to work through the issues together. Don’t try to smooth over difficulties. In order to build a strong and lasting relationship, you must face them head on. Also, if you are struggling in your relationship to a difficult poem and look with envy on someone else who reads it and seems to understand it perfectly and easily, know that at one point that person struggled too.
So take heart! Relax! Have fun! Approach a difficult poem with friendship and a willingness to make it work even if it means you begin with a simple introduction and a handshake. Who knows? It might be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.