What Makes a Poet Difficult?


Arts & Culture

Benjamin Haydon, Wordsworth on Helvellyn, 1842, oil on canvas. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

T. S. Eliot announced portentously in 1921 that “poets in our civilization as it exists at present must be difficult,” because modern life was confusing and difficult, too. The idea that new poems should be harder to read than prose, that serious poems pose a challenge to most readers, may seem like it began in the twentieth century, with the writers called high modernists (Eliot, Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein), who distanced themselves from prose sense in new ways. And yet some poems have seemed hard to read for a while. Eliot made his announcement in the course of his essay “The Metaphysical Poets,” about John Donne and the contemporaries of Donne. Lord Byron complained in 1819 that William Wordsworth had grown incomprehensible:

Wordsworth, in a rather long “Excursion”
…….(I think the quarto holds five hundred pages),
Has given a sample from the vasty version
…….Of his new system to perplex the sages;
’Tis poetry—at least by his assertion,
…….And may appear so when the dog-star rages—
And he who understands it would be able
To add a story to the Tower of Babel.

Most readers who try The Excursion do find it hard going; almost all think it’s too long. The earlier, more influential Wordsworth—the one who liked daffodils—can be a challenge, too. Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads (1798) consisted mostly of poems about peasants and rural scenes; its plain language seemed groundbreaking—or disturbing—for its apparent simplicity, like a Chuck Berry single on a playlist full of Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. It might have seemed, even, literally revolutionary: Wordsworth’s new ways of writing about peasants and other low-status people came out of his sympathies with the French Revolution, which he and his friends first supported, then came to oppose.

And yet when William Wordsworth wrote about his own inward nature, his own thoughts, he could get complicated indeed. He and his sister took a long walking tour in 1798 along the River Wye, which separates England from Wales. William and Dorothy stopped for the view a few miles north of the ruins of a monastery called Tintern Abbey. William therefore called his poem “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour, July 13, 1798.” The poem begins clearly enough: “Five years have past; five summers, with the length / Of five long winters! and again I hear / These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs.”

Then it gets weird. Five years ago (the poem continues), Wordsworth had hiked the same riverbank in a mood of severe apprehension, “more like a man / Flying from something that he dreads, than one / Who sought the thing he loved” (he had just come back from postrevolutionary France). In 1798, though, things were different. He had

To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue.—And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

“Nature,” it seems, will take care of him; but how? The great and snarky critic William Empson complained that the lines did not make grammatical sense. “It is not certain what is far more deeply interfused than what,” he mused. “It is not certain whether the music of humanity is the same as the presence … The something may possibly dwell only in the natural objects mentioned, ending at sky; the motion and the spirit are then not thought of at all as interfused into nature, like the something; they are things active in the mind of man. At the same time they are similar to the something; thus Wordsworth either feels them or feels a sense of them.”

Other critics treat the poet more respectfully, but they still disagree on what exactly he meant. Some of those critics focus on the long-suppressed—now amply verified—story of Wordsworth’s French lover, Annette Vallon, and their child, both of whom stayed in France when he moved away. My favorite Wordsworth expert, the Yale scholar Geoffrey Hartman, thought that nature taught Wordsworth how to calm down. But that’s not why those lines are in this essay. Nor are they here because “Tintern Abbey” remains so influential.

Instead, they’re here because it’s so hard to decide what they mean, and because so many people who can’t quite decide nonetheless find them inspiring or exciting or consoling. The tough parsing does not point to one right answer (as, say, crossword puzzles do); the range of potential answers, their overlap and their penumbras, are what you discover by reading the poem. Dorothy Wordsworth remembered “Tintern Abbey” that way, too. Decades later, quite ill, she wrote a short poem called “Thoughts on My Sick-Bed” about her memory of their walk; she “felt a power unfelt before” as she remembered “the green Banks of the Wye, / Recalling thy prophetic words.”

And that feeling might be one of the things that we mean when we call a writer or an attitude Romantic. You can trace those attitudes—and their attendant difficulty, weirdness, even vagueness—from both Wordsworths up to Hart Crane, who during the twenties tried to write poetry that was just as challenging as Eliot’s, but much more optimistic and way more gay. More than once during Crane’s short life, an editor agreed to publish his poems if and only if Crane could explain them in a letter. One of those poems was “At Melville’s Tomb,” which begins:

Often beneath the wave, wide from this ledge
The dice of drowned men’s bones he saw bequeath
An embassy. Their numbers as he watched,
Beat on the dusty shore and were obscured.

And wrecks passed without sound of bells,
The calyx of death’s bounty giving back
A scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph,
The portent wound in corridors of shells.

Here nature itself works like a difficult poem, its complex symbols yield shifting, spiritually empowering, hard-to-process meanings. Had Crane sought similar verbal effects decades later, he might have labeled them psychedelic. Men taken by the sea’s destructive randomness are both a legacy (“bequeathed”) and an embassy to the nonhuman world undersea; when they die and the sea exposes their skeletons, their bones are white like dice (the first-ever dice were carved from bones). A calyx (the part of a flower underneath the petals, the seat of its fertility) may take the same helical shape as a dangerous whirlpool; that whirlpool may kill sailors (who die without funereal bells) or give us back their corpses.

Crane composed poems while listening, over and over, to orchestra music on 78-rpm records; other poets imitate music directly, trying to bypass semantic expression, not to need it, as instrumentals do not need words. Fred Moten’s poems can sometimes be heard in that way: this very learned writer’s work offers roomfuls of references, but it can also seem to keep a healthy distance from description, narration, exposition, and explanation, moving toward a challenge in pure sound, almost as jazz innovators like Ornette Coleman and Alice Coltrane moved their own performances toward a musical abstraction and away from conventional melody. Moten’s poetry can also feel as if it is trying to describe itself, to give us the words for the ways in which its sounds move:

let it go till it comes back again. it should be something
on the wall, something on the floor should call itself when
they break it down to put it back up again. when it comes
back again it should be gone till it’s all gone again and
ready to return.

Again, from the same 2014 collection, The Feel Trio:

we study partial folds in them alpine jukes, bent, bow-
tongued stick and move and mahangonnic rupture in
september, in alabama, throat sung to the kabaret’s gener-
al steppe and fade. out here you breathe they breath, this
bridge is just, this bridge is just a pile of bones this load be
breathing, this alpine rasp in this dry bridge just be weaving.

You can find allusions and references here, if you want them (for example, to Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s “Alabama Song”). But they are not the point: the “partial folds” are the point, along with the way that the sounds make a kind of counterpoint to the meanings, the way that Moten finds a style that is at once immediate and evasive. You may not be sure what he wants, where the “partial folds” end, but you know he can take you there. And this kind of difficulty—there are others—might be called modern; but it can seem Romantic, too.


Stephanie Burt is a professor of English at Harvard University, coeditor of poetry at The Nation, and the recipient of a 2016 Guggenheim Fellowship for poetry. Her work appears regularly in the New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, London Review of Books, and other journals. She lives in Massachusetts.

Excerpted from Don’t Read Poetry: A Book about How to Read Poems, by Stephanie Burt. Copyright © 2019 by Stephanie Burt. Available from Basic Books.