Languages are difficult. When we first moved to Rome I couldn’t speak a word of Italian, but I took classes and learned to talk for both of us. Once weekend we were wandering around this art installation at a villa outside of town. Someone introduced us to an Italian publisher from a press called Maledizione, I laughed at the name. He smiled. So you speak some Italian, he said. Not really, I said, but I’m learning. Me too, he grinned. I hear it’s a beautiful language. Wild onions grew in the yard, and wherever people stepped, the smell of crushed scallions rose into the sun-stung air.
I think it was Rilke who said “everything worth doing is difficult.” Which is bollocks, by the way. There is nothing at all difficult about enjoying a good bacon sandwich, and it is absolutely worth doing.
People sometimes say that Love is difficult. This, I think, is true. But I also think Love simplifies many other things – whether or not to get up in the morning, for example, who to call.
Bernadette Mayer says, “Obfuscation bewilders old meaning.” When do we pass from difficulty to opacity; from opacity to meaninglessness? And what are the productions of meaninglessness?
Say language is an organ of perception. Now, say “lemon”. Can’t you taste it?
Remember the ancient Greek problem of the “heap”? Are two grains of sand a heap? Are six? Six hundred? Six-hundred and one? Which grain of sand transforms the accumulation into “a heap”? Surely, this matters more to the heap than to the sand.
The Cantos are difficult. They’re difficult in a way that teaches me nothing except how to feel very, very small. Which, I suppose, is not really nothing.
But Gertrude Stein is difficult in a way that teaches me to wonder why, after all, sugar is not a vegetable. It grows.
Is flower feminine? It’s not a very manly word. But is asphodel?
After we’d lived in Italy for a few months, I gave a reading at the house where Keats died. Afterwards, you and your son and I went out to dinner. On the way home from dinner, giddy with poems and wine and Sardinian food, we saw people rushing out of the internet shop where I always bought our bus tickets and phone cards. Then smoke, then a noise like the canon they fired each afternoon in the park down the street. Then all the glass cascading from the windows. I was afraid, I wanted to go home. No, you said, I think I saw who did it. We have to go see if we can help. I was mad at you, not because I didn’t want to help, but because it meant me speaking for us both again, since I alone was learning this new language. The caribinieri arrived. I talked, embarrassedly just listing words from the pages of a chapter on description: brown hair, black shirt, yellow how do you say? stripe. I said in Italian to the Bangladeshi man who our internet shop, It’ll be okay, it’ll be okay. He said, Don’t leave, please. If you go, the police will leave. And I understood that languages are not as difficult as some things that I didn’t know the words for. Maybe still don’t.
About that which we cannot speak, we must make new language.
Poetry is difficult. It’s about difficult things such as harrowing loss and exquisite calm and other things that remain only feelings while we try to configure the words to turn them into ideas. This does not make the feelings less powerful or less difficult, it just makes them more sentient. It vectors them.
Poetry is difficult because it’s made of languages, which are difficult. And none of these things – ideas or feelings or languages – can be handily wielded like a light epee with any hope of precision or control. It’s more like trying to aim a trebuchet at a Coke bottle set on the castle wall at 500 paces.
Poetry is difficult, and worth doing. But it’s not worth doing because it is difficult. Or anyway, that’s not why I do it. I think I do it for the bacon sandwiches.