When people say ‘difficult’ and ‘poetry’ in the same sentence they are usually referring to the experience of reading a certain type of poem. It is often a poem that seems to make little sense, that doesn’t have a strong sense of narrative, that uses strange words or strange forms, that does not follow rules of grammar and syntax, that may not even communicate any coherent message at all. Difficult poetry, for some reason, is a phrase that refers to these weird poems and the people who try to read them. Difficult poetry is about the tension and struggle to make sense of this weirdness.
Charles Bernstein even wrote a whole book about this type of poetry. It’s called Attack of the Difficult Poems. In this book he says that difficult poetry is hard to appreciate. He talks about how difficult poems can be offensive to readers, make them feel ‘inadequate’ or ‘stupid’. He admits that much of his long career as a professor has been trying to make life bearable for readers of difficult poetry. He even put together a ‘practical guide for handling difficult poetry’ and invented a new word for the act of reading difficult poetry – ‘wreading’ as in writing and reading mixed together, because according to Bernstein, reading difficult poetry is a ‘creative performance’ that requires ‘critical interpretation’.
Bernstein’s views make reading difficult poetry sound like some sort of war (one in which he is deeply entrenched); taxing, confusing and often without meaning. Yet a crucial part difficult poetry’s appeal is the surprising pleasures it produces, whether it’s the odd somatic qualities, images (or lack thereof) or systems and constraints that feel like games. In Matthew Welton’s series of poems he creates a rich linguistic playground for the reader to explore. Reading difficult poetry doesn’t have to be feel so tense or embattled. We often attempt to squeeze some sort of narrative meaning from poems, but difficult poems provide an alternative – the reader is invited to play.
The way Bernstein talks about difficult poems makes them seem like crop circles. They are these inscrutable, weird, compelling, sometimes beautiful, occasionally destructive things that just drop from the sky leaving no trace of their creator, objects of immaculate poiesis that leave us humans powerless to do anything but come up with elaborate ways of interpreting their messages. Indeed, crop circle experts are some of the most creative ‘wreaders’ around – the patterns stamped in fields are treated as a lens through which we can understand alien languages, the mysteries of Mother Earth, the secrets of ancient ancestors, etc.
In 1991, at the height of international interest in crop circles, two English men in their sixties admitted that they were almost single-handedly responsible for the crop circle craze, that they had been creating these patterns in the fields for more than 10 years. They described how on warm summer nights they’d have a beer at the pub, discuss water colour paintings, and then head out into the fields with wooden planks attached to two hand-held ropes for stomping the stalks, and a baseball cap fitted with a loop of wire to help them walk in a straight line. After years of labouring in the cover night, always careful not to damage the crops, always careful not to leave a trace of their labour, they were growing tired of the many imitations that were springing up around the English countryside as well as the ridiculous ’experts’ who were making millions of pounds writing books that taught the public how to interpret these ‘other worldly signs’. So, they decided to reveal themselves.
One evening, in the presence of a journalist from a London tabloid, they created one of their crop circles. The journalist then invited Patrick Delgado, the foremost crop circle expert in the world, to assess the formation and decide whether it was an authentic work of extra-human creation or whether it was a hoax. When Delgado entered the field, he said it was one of the most beautiful circles he had ever seen, that the precision of the circles gave him goose bumps. ’It is a genuine article,’ he confidently asserted. ’No human could’ve ever made this.’
When the two creators revealed themselves from behind the wheat bushels and told Delgado that they were responsible for making the circle, showing him their rudimentary tools, he said, ‘We have all been conned.’
But then later, in another interview, he added: ‘My reaction is one of wonderment at the artistry that they have done in such a manner that their work could be considered as something out of this world. They are to be admired in the way they have conducted their nocturnal escapades which made it look as though there was a real intelligence that we don’t understand. From this simple prank has developed one of the world’s most sensational unifying situations since Biblical days. If everything they say is correct this is a lesson to us all that we should look and listen to the beautiful and small things in life.’
What we were most interested in, when reading through the many hundreds of submissions for this edition of Cordite Poetry Review this edition, was not only the crop circles but also the ingenious acts of creation behind them. That is to say, not difficult poetry as such, but the difficulty of writing poetry – the act of creation, the labour that goes into the lines, the difficulty of writing a good one.
As we read through the submissions, we were reminded of the countless ways that writing poetry, particularly good poetry, is difficult. How it is difficult to point out the beauty and joy of something simple like flowers or outer space at a time like this; how it is difficult to give yourself the space to be playful with language and find compelling images inside it; how it is difficult to make the sound and rhythm of words your palette; how it is difficult to reach out and speak to an audience you don’t know about your life in a way that is unadorned; how it is difficult to find a poem amidst all this turmoil; how it is difficult to have conviction, to be funny, to create an alternate reality in four lines; how it is difficult to find the time to write poetry; and how it is is also difficult to say out loud, ‘I write poetry’, because sometimes people look at you like you’re slightly mad, as if you spend your nights dragging a wooden plank around a field while wearing a baseball cap with wire coming out of it, but that despite all this difficulty, you do it anyway.