The Uses of Difficulty, Written in the Margins of W.S. Graham
from Poetry Wales, Winter 2010 / 2011
Speaking is difficult and one tries
To be exact and yet not to
Exact the prime intention to death.
On the other hand the appearance of things
Must not be made to mean another
Thing. It is a kind of triumph
To see them and to put them down
As what they are. The inadequacy
Of the living, animal language
Drives us all to metaphor and an attempt
To organize the spaces we think
We have made occur between the words.
W.S. Graham, from 'Approaches to How They Behave" (1)
When do we learn to be frightened of difficulty? I mean in relation to poetry of course, but the question may have a broader developmental relevance. Presumably, in early childhood, most things—and language in particular—are 'difficult', being new and unpractised, but I don't recall it being a source of any great anxiety. And while we might expect our tolerance of perplexity to improve as we enter adulthood, in my role as university lecturer, various experts in pedagogy have 'trained' me not so much to welcome students to the dizzying and empowering thrills of complex thinking, as to disguise, simplify or otherwise wheedle into primary shapes any conceptually challenging material that might interrupt the smooth curve of a 'positive learning experience'. Nobody (politicians excepted) courts wilful obfuscation, but doesn't genuinely positive, deep learning emerge chiefly, if not exclusively, from some form of kindly supported intellectual struggle? Learning is hard. Understanding is hard. Having your habitual mental parameters stretched is hard. It takes time and effort. But I don't see how we do anyone any favours by pretending otherwise; nor do I see why difficulty is considered odious or elitist when surely it is an absolutely common experience. Climbing Pen y Fan, or understanding the terms of a friend's dilemma, or cooking a five course meal are not easy things, but they are not divisive or unpleasant either. When did effort in reading become so much less acceptable than effort in other things? Are we just becoming too lazy to spend time in demanding linguistic environments, formal spaces which insist on a distance between their own terms and the increasingly banal and patronising ones of 'learning outcomes', sound-bites, greeting-card sentiment and relentlessly thickening jargon? 'From ventricle to ventricle / A sign of assumed love passes / To keep the organisation going.' (2)
Poetry is generally regarded as the 'hardest' of literary forms. I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that even literature students are routinely afraid of its complexities, which probably doesn't bode well for the rest of the reading population. I think I understand this. I am also afraid of getting it wrong, or of not getting it at all. Here I am approaching a strange poem, peering in at the lines from the margins of white space like a weedy kid at the swimming pool, shivering on the lip, extending a tentative toe. I'm not sure about this. Maybe I don't like swimming. That must be it. Because I'd know right away if I liked it. Yes, I don't like this. This apparently candid approach, which actually confuses the immediacy or strength of a knee-jerk response with real judgment, is one that Jeanette Winterson dispatches with characteristic brio. Here she is discussing visual art, but what she says seems equally applicable to poetry:
The freshness which the everyday regular man or woman pride themselves upon; the untaught 'I know what I like' approach, now encouraged by the media, is neither fresh nor untaught. It is the half-baked sterility of the classroom washed down with liberal doses of popular culture. (3)
The notion that to like something you must like it and know that you like it instantaneously, thus favouring accessibility and the particular every time over complexity and abstraction, is a familiar cultural oppression but perhaps an especial problem for poetry, which almost by definition resists the habits of communicative simplicity. I don't just mean poetry that considers itself linguistically innovative, either, for lyric or narrative or devotional poetry also make their own demands—not least the surrendering of self to othernesses of experience, perception, philosophy—something that people don't generally excel at. The relationship between text and reader takes time and effort, and always has. Modernism did not after all invent this demand, but it did make rather a fetish of it, and maybe the flightier aspects of postmodernism are some kind of cultural cringe away from modernism's explicitness about the difficulty of one-on-one text-reader intimacy. But never mind which cultural moment we are in. 'What I am making is / A place for language in my life/ Which I want to be a real place/ Seeing I have to put up with it / Anyhow' (12). Or Winters on again, with a gauntlet: 'Supposing we made a pact with a painting [or poem] and agreed to sit down and look at it, on our own, with no distractions, for one hour' (8). Considering the journal to hand let's assume that you, the reader, actively like poetry, yet I would still venture that you haven't spent an hour with a single poem for a while. There is always so much else to do. Will you do it now, for really there is nothing like poetry for a gross imbalance between the time it takes to create and the time most of us spend 'consuming' it ('I am not here. I am not here / At two o'clock in the morning just / For fun. I am not here for something') (81). Come to think of it, slow reading is just a matter of courtesy. Choose a poem in this volume and spend an hour with it. A whole hour. 'Let us observe Malcolm Mooney. / Let us get through the suburbs and drive / Out further just for fun to see / What he will do' (11).
Because meanwhile here I am with W.S. Graham's last collection, Implements in Their Places. I'd like to say I have known this book for my whole reading life but in truth it is relatively new to me, and as a newcomer to his work I am taking a small part in a radio discussion about Graham which examines why he is not more widely read and appreciated. The obvious answer is because he is 'difficult'. 'What is the language using us for? / Said Malcolm Mooney moving away / Slowly over the white language. / Where am I going said Malcolm Mooney' (11). All good questions. Indeed, I have yet to encounter anything like Graham's late work for putting so brilliantly the torque of writing poetry; the exponentially maddening, tantalising relationship between the desire to wield language, and what really only ever amounts to a more finely articulated appreciation of its fundamental unwieldiness. 'Somewhere our belonging particles / Believe in us. If we could only find them' (63). Perhaps that is precisely why Graham is not more widely read, or rather why he has the dubious privilege of being considered a writers' writer: his work anatomises the poet's tussles with language in a way that probably interests writers more than anyone else in a culture that does not seem to value textuality and its implications very much. But he does so in a manner that feels intuitive or organic ('Clusters Travelling Out'), and sparkily cerebral rather than pompously abstract or intellectual. 'Dammit these words are making faces / At me again. I hope the faces / They make at you have more love' (72). Generally, Graham's poetry post-1970 is regarded as clearer, at least syntactically, than his earlier 'Dylanesque' style, though he himself apparently denied this was the case or intention, and his 'middle period' work, The White Threshold (1949) and The Nightfishing (1955) doesn't fit neatly into any kind of trajectory. But certainly it seems to me that his later work became conceptually more acute, albeit in forms which appear to hold their complexities more lightly. I mean this quite literally: in Malcolm Mooney's Land (1970) and Implements In Their Places (1977) there is more blank space to dwell in—the imprimatur of the 'difficult' modernist poem—but also, if we are patient, the mechanism by which the poem coaches/coaxes the reader in how to read it. Spaces are points of access, like the slip-paths to running tracks. You can hang out in them and limber up before joining the circuit. They are also points of retreat, where you can catch your breath, stretch a little. That is the strange voluptuousness of difficult reading, a little bit anarchic in a world that demands that we skim-read, digest, summarise, emerge triumphantly waving the poem's 'message'. Graham is well acquainted with spaces: 'How are we doing not very well? / Perhaps the real message gets lost. / Or is it tampered with on the way / By the collective pain of Alive?' (70). I use Graham as an example because I applied Winterson's technique—in itself a kind of anti-technique—to 'What Is The Language Using Us for' and 'Implements in Their Places' and it was a revelation, which is both astonishing and bit depressing given what I allegedly do for a living. But all poems are surrounded by spaces. Move into them. Right now. Take one hour.
What is the weather
Using us for where we are ready
With all our language lines aboard?
The beginning wind slaps the canvas.
Are you ready? Are you ready? (16)
1. W. S. Graham, Malcolm Mooney's Land (Faber and Faber, 1970), p.43.
2. W. S. Graham, 'Implements in their Places', Implements In Their Places (Faber and Faber, 1977), p.76. Further references to this volume are given as page numbers in parentheses.
3. Jeanette Winterson, Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery (Vintage Books, 1995). p.15. Further references to this volume are given as page numbers in parentheses.
Editor: Zoë Skoulding
Editorial Assistant: Robin Grossman