in praise of Difficult

There is this Rilke quote that you can find all over the internet (although sorry I can’t find where he actually said it):

What is required of us is that we love the difficult and learn to deal with it. In the difficult are the friendly forces, the hands that work on us.

I did find this in Letters to a Young Poet, though (letter No. 7):

Most people have (with the help of conventions) turned their solutions toward what is easy and toward the easiest side of the easy; but it is clear that we must trust in what is difficult; everything alive trusts in it […]. We know little, but that we must trust in what is difficult is a certainty that will never abandon us; it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be one more reason for us to do it.

Mere assertions, really, that stand or fall less on the strength of the evidence presented than on whether the assertions happen to resonate with the audience.

Well, they resonate with me. I’m a fan of Difficult, mostly. Yes, we all deal (must deal) in one way or another with Difficult when we come upon it, or it upon us. And, yes, what is my difficult is not necessarily yours. Everyone’s difficult is different.

But we all know what our difficult is, immediately, when we see it. And then there are Questions about it.

On the tactical level: When I am faced with Difficult, do I a) run from it or b) face it? On the strategic (more important?) level – when I do face Difficult, is it because I have a) stumbled upon it or b) sought it out?

There was recently an exchange on Difficult on the New Poetry list. Poet X posted in outrage about some incomprehensible work by some famous difficult poet (Peter Manson, as it happens). (You know how it goes: This means nothing to me. How can it mean anything to anyone!? Do this artist and his/her supporters take me for a fool? Anyone could do this! Watch me do it right here! Etc.)

And someone nice responded: Poet X, The piece you quote has been taken out of context. Yes, the whole work is difficult, but worth the effort, trust me. “Difficulty,” said the responder, “is usually the entry fee for anything new (or new in one’s experience), in the arts and elsewhere. Complaining about it makes no more sense than arriving on an unknown island and being offended by the lack of maps.”

To which my hero of the moment, Bob Grumman, responded (his response reproduced here with permission):

I commend [Poet X] for at least complaining about it, the standard reaction to such stuff of mainstreamers being to ignore it. I also think he SHOULD complain about there being no maps. That is one of my on-going complaints: no critical attention paid to people doing work like Manson’s or like other poets in schools of poetry totally or almost totally unknown to academia like, yes, mathematical poetry.

Why not, I just thinkz: a college class devoted to Literary Incomprehensibilty. Start with an overview of all the great writers whose work was first thought incomprehenisible, then do Stein’s Tender Buttons, excerpts from Finnegans Wake (neither of which I yet find comprehensible, except for a few lines here and there, myself) and “The Wasteland” and maybe something else from back then). Then present students with a list of incomprehensible contemporary texts by people like Manson, Jim Leftwich, P. Inman, Clark Coolidge, John M. Bennett, Scott Helmes, and require each student to choose one text no one else will be working on and require a thousand-word appreciation due at the close of the course. Devote each class after that to discussions of the poems. The teacher should guide but not give any help of substance–for instance, he might suggest where criticism of some of the authors or writers like them may be found, and maybe ask a clarifying question or two, but leave the students on their own. Group efforts allowed, perhaps encouraged.

Goals: forcing each student to confront the incomprehensible and find ways of dealing with it; astonishing a lucky few into a capacity for appreciation they wouldn’t have believed they could have (like me, when a friend said something that suddenly made me at 18 see what the impressionist painters were doing, and caused me on my own within weeks to appreciate the abstract expressionists and all kinds of other non-representational painters I had hitherto had contempt for). But also forcing those not able to appreciate whatever texts they had to try to appreciate to say what those texts lacked, what they did wrong, what it was about them that prevented appreciation–all of which would have to improve their critical sense. Intelligent negativity counting as much as intelligent positiveness.

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Nic Sebastian

Nic is the author of Forever Will End On Thursday and Dark And Like A Web. She founded the now-archived Whale Sound site and is co-founder of The Poetry Storehouse. Nic blogs at Very Like A Whale and Voice Alpha.

4 thoughts on “in praise of Difficult”

  1. As a writer, I find it much more difficult to write something accessible with several layers. In other words, to write a poem that is easy to read but that upon rereading is revealed to have more to it that requires background knowledge, so that it becomes a piece of art that has multiple discoveries. This kind of work draws a reader in and makes the effort of discovery worthwhile. And why, I always ask myself, should I devote time to a piece of work that is so difficult as to be almost incomprehensible? I could spend that time writing something, or buying groceries, or reading a novel that works without difficulty. Just because something is easy doesn’t make it bad. The contrary is also true: just because something is difficult doesn’t make it good. I am always stumbling over the emperor’s new clothes strewn about the landscape.

    The other problem, upon which Grumman touches, is the lack of education in critical thinking. How does one form an opinion of what is truly incomprehensible and what is merely difficult because of a lack of knowledge? How does one decide? The answer is to read as much as possible. The problem is that most of our education forces kids to read the incomprehensible before the comprehensible, thereby making them hate reading forever. Just fyi, I have kids (13 and 15 yrs. old) and the lack of good nonfiction in their schools is abominable.

    I keep going back to something I learned a long time ago: anyone can write something incomprehensible. It’s the simplest thing imaginable. It’s much harder to write something that makes sense to a great many readers, yet is sill complex enough to be truly innovative. That’s a work of art.

  2. Chrissie – many thanks for this thoughtful passage. You add a third pair of choices to the current churn in my brain with regard to the Difficult (as reader, writer, person):

    1. to confront (or not)
    2. to seek out (or not)
    3. to be (or not)

  3. This topic is on my mind a lot lately after teaching an art appreciation class last spring and engaging with students predisposed to thinking that art is incomprehensible by nature. In truth, most of them just lacked a vocabulary with which to engage with art of any kind — even the music they download on iTunes had gone unprocessed, simply taken for granted.

    I think the treatment here is right on. It hits the nail on the head by opening up the possibility that there are multiple nails and various hammers to use on them. There may even be nuts and bolts and screws and a corresponding need for wrenches and screwdrivers (not always the drink, but maybe on occasion).

    At the same time, and I debate myself on this, perhaps we do need those accessible yet meaningful and transformative works that require less effort and gain mass appeal, without which society maybe rampages on, its delusions and illusions unchecked? This runs toward a historical consideration that appears more hazy and frequently co-opted the longer one looks at it. Dickens anyone?

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