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on Difficult Poetry, some reflections from Canvas…

There are a lot of different things that can be learned from engaging and reading “difficult poetry”. One of the first things that Charles Bernstein mentions that can be gained are “enriching and aesthetic experiences”. These experiences can be felt once we get past the initial feelings of discouragement that can come when faced with a difficult poem. We can learn that a “difficult poem” does not mean abnormal. We can learn that difficult poems, because of their difficult nature, can also be quite unpopular. According the Bernstein the unpopular poem does not mean that it is useless. Possibly its “unpopularness” can bring you and the poem closer together. One of the most important things that we can learn from reading difficult poems is that just because something is difficult or hard to understand does not warrant that it needs to be discarded. Difficult poems often offer insight to things that we as the reader may never gain. Difficult poems pose a challenge that can be accepted by the reader. Bernstein changes my idea of what of poetry in two ways. First he encourages me to work through my frustrations with poetry. By saying that difficult poetry is a common issue I have less of a “poetry is out to get me” feeling. He also makes me feel more attached to the poetry. As if the poem needs me to survive. The poem needs my interpretations to stay alive and the poetry helps me to see things differently in life.

A poem from the Poetry Packet that uses language vividly is Hinako Abe. Some examples are “the wild roses were so dry they looked like they might burst into flame at any moment”, “his back lost the sunlight like a retreating boat growing cold and dark at the summit” “his face grew as pale as gorgonzola cheese”.  These sentences help to paint the scene in the poem. It helps me to get the idea of the scene. By using such vivid language I think it helps me to follow the emotions and theme of the poem.

One is not stupid merely because he or she cannot comprehend the syntax or the usage of high vocabulary, in a given difficult poem, that may not be used in every day speech. Rather, when we engage difficult poetry, we need to familiarize ourselves with methods that will help improve our ability to be a little more receptive to difficult poetry.

Bernstein helped explain that a difficult poem isn’t meant to intimidate you, even though that’s how we may feel, bur rather that difficult poetry can be called unique in its own constructed style. He goes on to further say that difficult poems will provoke the reader.

By giving our full attention to the poem, the provocative feel from the poem gradually diminishes. But of course, Bernstein is absolutely correct in saying that no poem is difficulty-free regardless of syntax and vocabulary.

One poem worthy of reflection is entitled Geology of Water. I like this poem because of its descriptive nature that creates brilliant imagery when reading each line. One line that caught my attention reads, “…plates shifting in their cobalt sleep to nudge the continents apart…” One can imagine the intensity of the dark blue hues of cobalt within the underwater world as the shifting of tectonic plates pull or “nudge” the continents ever softly without a moment of realization.

Bernstein asserts that one of the big things poetry can do, especially difficult modern poetry, is bring an innovative new aesthetic to poetry. This can be either in form, content, or the way the poem is structured. Starting in the early 20th century, the modernism movement in literature, art and culture opened up a new way of looking at the subject matter. One of the major parts of this movement was the focus on the vast possibilities for interpretation in art and literature. In art this led to interpretive movements like cubism, but in literature it was more visible in the kinds of poetry being published. Whereas poems before the time seemed to, for the most part, fit certain structural (rhyme scheme, length) and contextual schemes (religious, personal, political) that could be identified, modern poems challenged these preconceived notions of what poems should and could be. Because these poems were far more open to interpretation than their classic counterparts, they fit the criteria of what Bernstein’s essay would consider to be a difficult poem.

I liked the varied look at poetry in the Poetry Packet we looked at in class. Most of the poems seemed to tell its story in very different ways, varying in length, content, rhyme scheme, and form. Some of my personal favorites were the Japanese poems. They did not have a complicated rhyme scheme, in fact most of them did not rhyme at all, but I felt that the way the prose was organized was very soothing and relaxing, and the discussion of the natural world and its order also felt reassuring and reading the poem became like a reflection or meditation on nature, helping to broaden and ease your mind at the same time.

Reading and engaging with difficult poetry can allow us to learn numerous things about the poet or ourselves based on the relationship the poem has between the poet as well as the audience. Like many forms of art, poetry is essentially a means of accessing the psyche of the poet: their philosophies on subjects like politics or culture, their opinion of the medium they are using, etc. They use language to convey these ideas in a manner that may make sense to them or their community, but may not make sense to mainstream audiences. As Bernstein said, difficult poetry is not popular simply because not everyone finds it accessible (Bernstein 5). However, the attempt to engage and understand the poet’s mindset can reveal information that can provide deeper meaning to the poem. As I learned in high school, Sylvia Plath took a darker turn with her poetry toward the end of her life because her suicidal tendencies seeped into the page; an idea that may have passed over the heads of her audience seeing as how she was successful, but can be obvious to modern readers that know of her death. Someone who has never had suicidal tendencies may overlook these darker verses without understanding the point, indicating that the reader is perhaps more content with life than they realize upon learning of the poem’s purpose. As such, it can be said that difficult poetry can reveal things about ourselves as well as the poet once one takes the time to thoroughly understand.
With that said, Bernstein’s ideas showed me that poetry can be symbolic in more ways than just language. High school showed me that poetry can have hidden meaning but stuck to the traditional structure: block stanzas with proper grammar and little variety beyond the subject. However, Bernstein showcased that the entire poem is literally the poet’s to do with as they please: structure, grammar, vocabulary are all the tools that a poet can use to experiment with aesthetic or lace meaning and symbolism into the poem for the reader to interpret (Bernstein 34). He showed me that while some poets choose everything they do carefully, others can merely just have fun with the possibilities that poetry has to offer; an idea that makes poetry analysis a little more interesting than in high school.
To continue with this line of thinking, difficult poetry can also allow the poet to experiment with the nature of the medium in order to find new methods of conveying meaning. The poem “The Scent of Verbena,” by Hinako Abe is the one that stood out the most to me for this because, while it does have a sense of coherence that I can follow along what the poet is describing for the most part, the storyline and structure indicate the poet’s attempt to play with the poem’s structure to convey his point. Initial readings made me believe the narrator is describing a hike for the first half of the poem but was tortured by one of the hikers he was with, showing the immediate aftermath in the second half of the poem with blunt imagery throughout. To begin, I would not consider “The Scent of Verbena” a vivid poem. While there is copious amounts of imagery, the poet seems only to describe the area in order to emphasize the emotions of the narrator. The focus is kept on the narrator’s actions as they climb with little emphasis on the imagery beyond a brief mention to set the scene. The poet does play with the descriptive nature, however, to convey his purpose. For instance, no letter other than I is capitalized within the poem and there are also no periods to indicate the end of the sentence, just longer spaces between words. Other than that, there is nothing in this poem to indicate when one sentence ends and the next one begins, making the shift in tone all the more jarring once it occurs. The poem also forgoes the traditional block stanza structure for a pair of reflected triangles, one pointing up and the other pointing down. The down triangle has much brighter imagery, with Abe using flames and wild roses to project vibrant imagery into the reader’s mind. However, as they get closer to the second triangle, Abe places more emphasis on darkness and cold with phrases like “faded into shadow” and “growing cold and dark.” The second triangle then jumps to the aftermath of the narrator’s torture, continuing the dark imagery with an emphasis placed on the tormentor’s death. Based on these interpretations alone, it can be said that Abe used this unorthodox structure to emphasize this turn, keeping the beginning bright and warm in the top triangle but becoming darker as the reader approaches the second, reflecting the narrator’s descent into darkness. This is further emphasized by the lack of traditional indicators of a new sentence, as previously stated: to a reader, this poem seems to be a single idea running for forty lines; however, this is not the case and it makes the sudden turn all the more stunning as there are no indicators that a new, darker idea has started. While it lacks the traditional tropes of a poem which can make it perplexing to some, “The Scent of Verbena” can be an example of a difficult poem used to experiment with poetry structure to emphasize its meaning once given thought.

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