(Ed note: This post first appeared here on March 10, 2008. Mark Doty is the guest editor of the Best American Poetry 2012. You can catch him at the BAP launch reading on September 20. Find out more about Mark Doty here.)
I've just gotten home from school (I'm a guest teacher at Cornell University in Ithaca this semester)which means I've walked a bike-path through the woods, still ice-coated from this weekend's storm. It's amazing. When the wind blows the trees crackle, with a sound that's a bit like hissing oil in a skillet and a bit like the sound that that the highest lick of seawater makes as the tide comes in and sinks into dry sand. I like this walk and it's a good time to sort through the conversation and events of the workshop I've just taught.
Today we were looking at poems by Terrance Hayes from WIND IN A BOX. My workshop's centered on the poetic sequence, so we're interested in poems composed in groups, or longer poems in sections. I think my students were slightly frazzled by the daylight savings timeshift today, and I was feeling sort of spun-around myself, because right before class I'd been reading an essay by Charles Harper Webb in the current issue of THE WRITERS CHRONICLE. Webb's essay concerns difficulty in poetry, which he thinks there's too much of; I paraphrase here, but he seems to feel that many poets write for an elite group of other poets who appreciate coded gestures and opaque language that may be incomprehensible to the general reader. The thing that startled me about the article was that Webb says that such poetry has turned away from "natural human taste."
Whoa. It's clear that it's in the nature of human beings to make things, but as to calling what we make "natural" or "artificial" -- well, that's a scary business. Webb feels that poems that are readily understood by the general reader (he cites Billy Collins and Sharon Olds as examples) are natural, and that more demanding work isn't; astonishingly, Webb identifies the general reader as someone who'd probably like A Prairie Home Companion.
I could talk about what I disagree with in this position for several weeks worth of blogging, but suffice to say that the presumption inherent in calling any kind of art "natural" is unnerving, because of course it implies that whatever the critic doesn't care for will go tumbling into the abyss of the other category. "Natural" has a long history of ugly usage. There are plenty of states remaining where I could be arrested, if the authorities so desired, for my private practice of "unnatural acts," and one doesn't have to look far back in time to find the ways in which what was presumed to be "natural" for women or for people of color was in fact simply an expression of the prejudices of the moment. "Natural," as they say, pushes my buttons.
I can only be grateful that poets refuse to take such a position seriously. The two greatest of American poets were, of course, practioners of disparate poetics practically incomprehensible in their own time; how long did it take Whitman and Dickinson to find their audience? Should they have attempted to speak to the "general reader"? (Whitman, of course, did so, as time went on, and not always with very happy results. His great poems are the demanding, uncompromising ones.)
What looks difficult to us is often merely different, and isn't it a pleasure to encounter what we don't know how to read yet? There ought to be room in the huge house of American poetry for all sorts of practice, from the plainspoken to the highly wrought, from the direct to the encoded, from the open to the secretive. And besides, if what we strive for is to be "natural" -- well, which to prefer, the artifice of the spider or of the bee, the termite or the paper wasp, all makers of intricate systems? I am not convinced that nature is all that plainspoken.
Okay, enough rant. I was thinking about my class, and about how my dear and earnest Cornell students, who dwell in a culture that places great value upon intellectual achievement, on working hard
to find correct answers, seemed to struggle with finding their way in Terrance's poems. What I understood, after we talked about two pieces, was that they weren't quite hearing his tone; they hadn't found access to the voice that informs the work, the over-riding or indwelling current of feeling.
For them, the poems were emotionally difficult - which presents another, more interesting dimension
to Webb's argument. There are many sorts of difficulty, after all, and what "difficult" is depends on who's doing the reading.