Reading the Difficulties is another spring 2014 release in the Modern/Contemporary Poetics series co-edited by Charles Bernstein and Hank Lazer. It is less a book about how to read ‘difficult’ contemporary poetry than one that presents examples of readers doing that. The subtitle, “dialogues with contemporary American innovative poetry,” suggests that “reading” can involve having “dialogues” with poems, and is a fair description of most of the contents. Two of the twelve essays are on Canadian poets, bpNichol and Lisa Robertson, who appear to have become honorary Americans for this occasion. Or perhaps “American” has been unconsciously redefined here as referencing North America – the rapid globalization of literary distribution and creation has complications for everyone. Also frequently cited here is a third Canadian, Steve McCaffery.
Difficult not to notice is the sometimes awkwardly close connection between the book and series co-editor Bernstein, who rather famously linked the word ‘difficulty’ to his own writing in his 2011 collection The Attack of the Difficult Poems. Much of the first third of this book reads like a tribute that important book. The lead-off contribution is his 2006 poem “Thank You for Saying Thank You,” which begins “This is a totally / accessible poem.” The fourth essay is a comparison by Stephen Paul Miller of Bernstein and Walter Benjamin as radical secular Jewish poets. Thirty-three mentions of Bernstein are listed in the index (mostly in the first 50 pages), more than double those of any other writer except for fellow Language poet Ron Silliman who receives 23.
The arguments of most of the contributors indeed have their roots in Bernstein’s assertions over the years in work such as The Artifice of Absorption (1987) and Content’s Dream: Essays 1975-84 (2001) against the reduction by readers and teachers of literary works to their “content” – a scandalizing argument that has paralleled in the US poetry scene the one which I introduced to the Canadian Literature criticism scene in 1974 with my (“vastly influential” according to the Oxford Companion [one hopes!]) essay “Surviving the Paraphrase.” Paralleled with rather more panache, disruptive force and literary consequence, I would say. Here is some of Bernstein’s “artifice of absorption” argument against paraphrase, i.e. against throwing away a text’s materiality while “absorbing” its imagined/abstracted “meaning”:
... it is the invisible of writing
that is imagined to be absorbed
while the visible of writing usually goes unheard
or is silenced. The visibility of words
as a precondition of reading
necessitates that words obtrude impermeably into
impermeability makes a reader’s absorption
in words possible. The thickness
of words ensures that whatever
of their physicality is erased, or engulfed, in
the process of semantic projection,
heres that will not be sublimated
away. Writing is not a thin film
of expendable substitutions that, when reading, falls
to reveal a meaning.
Most of the essays in Reading the Difficulties are examples of reading in which engage the impermeable elements of a poetry text – those elements that resist a reader’s rush toward explication and paraphrase. Hank Lazer in “Poetry Is Difficult”/“Poetry is Not Difficult” puns on the word “partial” in arguing that all readings are both interested and incomplete: “In every sense of the word, what one hears (or what one ‘gets’) from a poem is inevitably partial” (31). Using his own poems as examples, he suggests that the perceived “difficulty” of a poem resides more often in its reader than in the text.
Truly, reading, even reading poetry, even reading innovative contemporary poetry, is not difficult. If there is difficulty, it lies within the reader’s assumptions (often unconscious or unarticulated) about what the nature of the reading experience should be. Difficulty (frequently accompanied by the assertion of “I don’t like it”) masks a discomfort with reading a kind of writing that may be unfamiliar. The rejection of the new and the unfamiliar constitutes a kind of xenophobia – fear of otherness. (33)
The essays on the two Canadian poets are situated largely outside the politics associated with Language and post-Language US poetry. Writing on Lisa Robertson, poet Christopher Schmidt even notes – with a humourous reference to “Artifice of Absorption" – how she and her own anti-absorptive poetry have avoided being closely associated with or 'absorbed' by any national culture or poetry school. Schmidt focuses on Robertson’s oblique architecturally 'soft' critiques of the centuries-old pastoral fantasy which has underpinned capitalist ideology, and on the cool seemingly both personal and impersonal cadences of her texts and how they “perform capitalist renovation” (154). Fellow-poet Paolo Javier’s essay “Some Notes on bpNichol, (Captain) Poetry, and Comics” similarly lacks the repeated references to the US poetry scene of the other essays. It is also, however, less well-informed than the Schmidt essay on the details of its poet’s career – unaware, for example, that “The Captain Poetry Poems Complete” is the title only of Book Thug’s 2011 republication and not that of the somewhat different first edition of 1971, which Javier appears not to have seen. The concern for “difficulty” here is muted – or better, transmuted into an interest in the oddity of the conventions of the comic strip being used and modified in the context of poetry, thus creating a “hybrid language” (187). One wishes that Javier had been able to see and respond to Nichol’s numerous other adaptions of the comic strip frame with fiction, poetry, visual poetry, and pataphysical creations. Is all this work “difficult”? – in Nichol’s case this writing has been overshadowed by his more textual work, i.e has been more shunned, poorly distributed, less written about than disparaged; as in Lazer’s remarks about the familiar and the less familiar, the more familiar seems to have been his readers’ (xenophobic?) preference.
This book's readers may want to approach Reading the Difficulties much the way Kimmelman implicitly recommends readers approach Silliman’s The Alphabet: browse, look around, appreciate the chapters you can readily engage with, examine why you have ‘difficulty’ with others.