On Difficulty in Poetry

Reginald Shepherd | May/Summer 2008

Reginald Shepherd


"What are these songs
straining at sense—
you the consequence?"

Louis Zukofsky, Anew 10


It's been the fashion at least since the Modernists to complain that contemporary poetry has become difficult, and that this difficulty has alienated the readers who used to flock to poetry as they now flock to John Grisham novels and American Idol. I am not sure what constitutes the easy poetry these people look back to: Shakespeare? Donne? Milton? I'm also not sure when and where this massive poetry audience existed. The great majority of the 19th-century counterparts of those who now watch television and read pulp fiction were barely literate. They certainly weren't seduced away from their immersion in Keats and Browning by the advent of the mass media. Conversely, Dylan Thomas was one of the most popular poets of the 1940s and '50s, on both sides of the Atlantic, and his work is nothing if not "difficult" (and it isn't nothing, though it is somewhat forgotten today). And both avant-gardists and poetic populists are often too busy bashing T.S. Eliot to remember that he filled arenas when he gave readings. Today John Ashbery and Jorie Graham, whose work is usually considered to be challenging at the least, are among our most popular poets, prominent enough to have each been profiled in the New Yorker, a magazine not usually known for overly taxing its readers.

I don't believe that the imaginary "average person" doesn't want to be challenged and stimulated. There is, for example, a whole industry of verbal challenges, from crossword puzzles to Scrabble, that the so-called general public relishes.

In the perennially popular "death of poetry" discourse, there's a consensus that people don't read poetry because it's too hard, too "elitist" (another word that should be expunged from the English language: it's never descriptive, only pejorative). I've always thought the opposite, that most poetry isn't hard enough, in the sense that it's not interesting or engaging enough. It doesn't hold the attention—you read it once or twice and you've used it up. The engagement I look for and too often miss is a kind of pleasure, in the words, the rhythms, the palpable texture of the poem. It's the opposite of boredom.

...poetry's challenges and pleasures are far more diverse than the intellectual, though I do believe that the intellectual is an essential element in poetry: to modify Eliot's dictum, the poem must be as intelligent as possible.

Literary critic Vernon Shetley, who observes that most contemporary poetry has grown less, not more difficult, since the Moderns (perhaps it might be more accurate to say, most contemporary "mainstream" poetry), argues in his book, After the Death of Poetry: Poet and Audience in Contemporary America that "only by increasing the level of intellectual challenge it offers can poetry once again make itself a vital part of intellectual culture."1 I would add that poetry's challenges and pleasures are far more diverse than the intellectual, though I do believe that the intellectual is an essential element in poetry: to modify Eliot's dictum, the poem must be as intelligent as possible.

Many years ago, I sat in on a class of Ted Kooser's in which he asserted that a reader wants to be led by the hand through a poem, that readers have no patience with being baffled, no tolerance for mystery. I had to interject that I hated to be led by the hand through a poem. I'd rather that the poet assume that I can make my own way through a poem, though I do prefer that there at least be pathways, even if they're not paved and lit. I don't object to being baffled, though I also don't want to remain in bafflement indefinitely. Just as mystery can be part of a person's allure, so mystery in poetry can be a lure: Yeats calls this "the fascination of what's difficult." One wants to solve the mystery, or at least to better understand its source. Sometimes, one discovers that the mystery isn't to be solved, but still that process of exploration has helped one to know the thing better, to experience it more fully. On the other hand, superficial mystery is merely shallowness posing as depth. As Howard Nemerov notes, some poets "wish to make common matters singular, easy matters hard, and shallow thoughts profound."2 To quote a perhaps unlikely source, Billy Collins has written that, "in the best of all possible worlds of reading, dealing with difficulty can be listed among poetry's pleasures."3

What I cannot bear, as a reader or as a person, is to be bored. For a poem to be boring is much worse than for a poem to be baffling. In Marianne Moore's words, "Paramount as a rule for any kind of writing—scientific, commercial, informal, prose, or verse—we dare not be dull."4 (Dullness is as much the enemy of poetry now as it was when Pope wrote.) Incomprehension and even frustration can seduce in poems just as they can in people: many objects of desire are obscure, but their outlines are clear. What does the sunlight breaking through the clouds that have hovered all day, then filtering through the leaves of the giant live oak tree in my back yard, "mean"? It is, I saw it, I felt it on my skin. You can see something too, feel that slight difference in the temperature when you step out from under that tree, your feet sinking a little into the thick layer of leaf litter. Too many bad poems, dull poems, are just meaning, with nothing or too little doing the meaning. I know what they mean, but I can't be bothered to care. As Charles Bernstein notes, some poems are easy because they have nothing to say. Conversely, some poems are difficult for the same reason, in an attempt to cover up their vacuity. Irish poet Mark Granier points out that some poems are difficult merely in the manner of a difficult child, sullenly or gleefully sticking out their tongues at the reader.

It's often said that "difficult" poems exclude potential readers. This can certainly be true, but I feel excluded by poems that give me nothing to do as a reader, that offer me no new experience and nothing I didn't already know. It's wearying to read such poems, and it makes me want to watch music videos instead, where at least one sometimes gets glimpses of shirtless guys with six-pack abs. Any good poem gives the reader something, what Allen Grossman calls the interest of the world: feelings, sensations, experiences. T.S. Eliot wrote that genuine poetry can communicate before it's understood. I would say analogously that good poetry can and should give pleasure before it's understood. As Wallace Stevens noted of his supreme fiction, it must give pleasure. It is this pleasure that makes one want to understand the poem. Whether my poems are always immediately graspable in terms of subject matter or not, I have always tried to give the reader something in terms of language, imagery, rhythm, etc., to make the poem a sensual experience. Understanding something can be a pleasurable experience (it can also be intensely painful), but in poetry as in life there are other pleasures than understanding. In Billy Collins's words, "Surely, you can enjoy a poem before you understand it...The grasping of a poem's meaning, however provisional it may be, is only one of the many pleasures that poetry offers."5

I don't "understand" some of my favorite poems. I don't know what they "mean," but I know what happens to me when I read them; I know the experience I have and its effect on me. Hart Crane has been one of my favorite poets for almost thirty years, but until I taught his poetry I didn't "understand" "The Broken Tower." I am glad that I do now, but only because that understanding has enriched an experience I was already having.

Geoffrey Hill observes that "difficult poetry is the most democratic, because you are doing your audience the honour of supposing that they are intelligent human beings. If you write as if you had to placate or in any way entice their lack of interest, then I think you are making condescending assumptions about people. I mean people are not fools. But so much of the populist poetry of today treats people as if they were fools." I don't want to be patronized or condescended, as a reader or a person; I would prefer that the poet assume that I am both intelligent and interested.

The ideal reader is on the one hand willing and alert enough to actively participate in the poem's production of meaning and on the other hand demanding enough to insist that the poem provide the material with which to produce such meaning and perceptive enough to see whether or not these pieces actually do form some kind of gestalt, however unexpected its shape. The poem may not adhere to standard, linear logic, but it must have a logic of its own. The reader must reach out to the poem, but the poem must also reach out to the reader, however obliquely.

As Charles Bernstein notes, some poems are easy because they have nothing to say. Conversely, some poems are difficult for the same reason... Irish poet Mark Granier points out that some poems are difficult merely in the manner of a difficult child, sullenly or gleefully sticking out their tongues at the reader.


It is always important to define one's terms, and yet it is rarely done. In order to clarify my topic, I offer here my anatomy of difficulty in poetry. I present the several kinds of difficulty in order of ascending complexity.

First, there is lexical difficulty: the poem contains words with whose sense we are unfamiliar, or words used at variance from or even contrary to their dictionary definitions. Hart Crane's poetry is a perfect example of such difficulty, full of both arcane and recherche words ("infrangible," "transmemberment") and of words given idiosyncratic or private meanings: for example, the use of the word "calyx" to mean both a cornucopia (ironic, since the bounty is death's) and "the vortex made by a sinking vessel" (Crane's explication) in this stanza from "At Melville's Tomb":

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.

Then, there is allusive difficulty; the poem that alludes frequently eludes. The poet refers to something we've not heard of, assumes a piece of knowledge we don't have. If one does not know that Herman Melville wrote obsessively about the sea, then one won't understand that the ocean itself is treated as his final resting place, though the man himself died on dry land. If one does not have "But at my back I always hear/Time's wingèd chariot hurrying near," and the rest of "To His Coy Mistress," in one's ear, the relationship of poem and title of Archibald MacLeish's "You, Andrew Marvell" will appear rather opaque, and some of the poem's sense of doom may be lost. Similarly, if one does not recognize the place names ("And Lebanon fade out and Crete / High through the clouds and overblown // And over Sicily the air / Still flashing"), one will miss the grim irony of darkness flooding in from the east, usually associated with sunrise, rather than from the west. Sometimes the allusion is implicit or indirect: one will miss some of the force (and some of the humor) of Frost's "For Once, Then, Something," if one misses the presence of Narcissus in love with his own image in a pool in its description of a man who sees "Me myself in the summer heaven" reflected in the water of a well. In this case, one must not only recognize the allusion, but notice that an allusion is being made at all. Poems considered difficult often allude to material outside the common literary or intellectual frame of reference. Modernist poetry is particularly difficult in its wide range and idiosyncratic, often inexplicit, deployment of allusion.

There is also syntactical difficulty, the obstacle of complex, unfamiliar, dislocated, broken, or incomplete syntax: one cannot discern or reconstruct the relations of the grammatical units. Swerving away from the conventions of prose syntax has long been an integral part of poetic practice: as Howard Nemerov explains, it is "precisely the sort of rhetorical and musical variation which properly belongs to poetry and distinguishes it from prose."6 The long, Latinate sentences of Milton's Paradise Lost are one example of this kind of difficulty; the fragmented, fractured syntax of much avant-garde poetry is another. In the case of Paradise Lost, one can parse the syntax with patience and careful attention, and part of its function is to make the reader pay attention; in many avant-garde poems, the syntax is intended to remain indeterminate, deliberately unparsable, resisting the reader's desire to make it cohere.

There is also semantic difficulty; we have trouble determining or deciding what a poem says or means, we cannot immediately decipher or interpret it. (It is important here to remember that sense and reference are distinct; sense is internal to the poem, as it is to language itself. As linguist David Crystal elucidates in How Language Works, "Sense is the meaning of a word within a language. Reference is what a word refers to in the world outside language."7 From this perspective, it's more useful to think of the poem as a field full of meanings than as a thing that means something else, or as a container for or vehicle of meaning.) Semantic difficulty encompasses figurative difficulty, in which we can't unpack the poem's metaphors, or can't determine what is tenor and what is vehicle, especially when, as is frequently the case, one or the other is omitted, or when the presence and process of figuration is only implied. (This might be called the difficulty of elliptical figuration, as when in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" Eliot describes the actions of the yellow fog in terms of a cat's actions without ever mentioning the word "cat.") Difficulties interpreting tone, determining the stance and attitude the poem takes and wants the reader to take toward its material, would also fall under the heading of semantic difficulty.

Semantic difficulty can in turn be broken down into difficulty of explication and difficulty of interpretation. Some poems present both kinds of difficulty, some only one or the other. In the case of explicative difficulty, the reader cannot decipher the literal sense of the poem: "What is this poem saying?" One encounters this in Hart Crane's "At Melville's Tomb," and he wrote an extensive explication of the poem for Harriet Monroe, founding editor of Poetry. In the case of interpretive difficulty, one grasps what is being said on the literal level, but doesn't know what it means, what it is meant to do. John Ashbery's poems, usually syntactically and explicationally clear, often present this interpretive difficulty. As poet Robert Kelly writes in an essay on Ashbery's Chinese Whispers, "The complex system of reference and allusion in Ashbery is balanced with a serenely lucid grammar—it is perfectly easy to understand what he isn't saying."8 In a different way, and because of their very simplicity and bareness, William Carlos Williams's "This Is Just to Say" or "Poem" ("As the cat / climbed over / the top of // the jamcloset") present extreme cases of interpretive difficulty, in which the "what" is so clear as seemingly to preclude a "why." To say that one doesn't know what a poem means, if one understands its literal sense, is to say that one doesn't know why it's saying what it's saying. The reader asks, "Why am I being told or shown this?"

It is semantic difficulty which readers are usually experiencing when they say, "I don't understand this poem."

Then there is formal difficulty, what John Hollander calls the difficulty of problematical form; one cannot ascertain the poem's shape, cannot hold it in one's head as a construct. Or one cannot determine what kind of poem it is, and thus doesn't know how to read it, in much the same sense that one might try and fail to "read" a person. The reader cannot determine or recognize the formal contract (on the analogy of Hollander's concept of the metrical contract) to which the poem asks him or her to agree. This difficulty is most commonly encountered with poems that play with or violate conventions and expectations, that try to break and/or recreate form: remembering always the intimate relation of form and content, which, as Creeley wrote, are extensions of one another. The question the reader asks is, "What kind of poem is this?"

In the case of formal difficulty, one could add the possibility that the reader understands the terms of the poem's formal contract, but refuses or feels unable to accede to them. Many American poetry readers today, raised on free verse, find it difficult to read metrical and/or rhyming poetry. They can't hear its shape, can't feel its rhythms; its sounds don't make sense to their ears. This type of formal difficulty can be called rhythmic difficulty.

Finally, formal difficulty is a particular case of what George Steiner, cited by Shetley, calls modal difficulty. When we experience modal difficulty, "we fail to see a justification for poetic form, the root-occasion of the poem's composition eludes or repels our internalized sense of what poetry should or should not be."9 Steiner actually writes, "what poetry should or should not be about," but I broaden his statement to encompass not just topic or occasion but the poem's status and recognizability as a poem. The two poems by Williams mentioned earlier are prime examples of modal difficulty. To some readers, they are not poems at all, in the same way that Jackson Pollock paintings are not "art" to some viewers. This is another way of saying that those readers lack a frame for these poems. (One often suspects that those same readers, if they accept "The Red Wheelbarrow" as a poem, only do so because it has been taught so often as one; they have been trained to look for its supposed hidden meanings.) Clark Coolidge's poems appear as gibberish to many readers: they present both semantic and modal difficulty. In the case of modal difficulty, a reader asks, "What makes this a poem?"

When people call a poem difficult, they are generally experiencing either semantic difficulty ("I don't know what this poem is saying" or "I don't know why this poem is saying what it's saying"), formal difficulty ("I can't see/hear the shape of this poem"), or modal difficulty ("I don't recognize this as a poem").

Another way to divide up the field would be to distinguish between difficulties of explication (which would include lexical, allusive, and syntactic difficulty), difficulties of interpretation (which would comprise the several varieties of semantic difficulty), and difficulties of recognition (which would encompass both formal and modal difficulty). These categories, of course, can and do overlap.

All of the kinds of difficulty I have enumerated and described are violations of readerly expectations. All readers, no matter how catholic in their tastes and in their knowledge, come to poems with some or another set of expectations. And those expectations are not merely individual but social and historical: as Howard Nemerov points out, "What one age finds obscure sometimes, not always, comes to seem perfectly plain to another age."10 Readers may and do vary widely in their expectations of a poem, and they may have different expectations of different poems and different kinds of poems. But it's impossible to approach a poem as if one were one of John Locke's blank slates. Shetley points out that "readers' training, expectations, and knowledge have everything to do with whether particular forms of language are experienced as difficult... Different groups of readers have different skills and expectations; allusions familiar to one... audience may be mysterious to another, and received conventions that structure the sense of what makes an utterance a poem may vary widely."11 Every reader encounters poetic difficulty of some kind at some point.

Poems considered difficult often allude to material outside the common literary or intellectual frame of reference. Modernist poetry is particularly difficult in its wide range and idiosyncratic, often inexplicit, deployment of allusion.


Difficulty is not equivalent to complexity. Despite their deceptive surface simplicity, Ben Jonson's poems on the deaths of his children, "On My First Daughter" and "On My First Son," are complex, but they are not difficult. Many of e.e. cummings's more typographically wayward poems are difficult, but not complex. This is another way of saying that they are obscure.

There is a difference between difficulty and obscurity. All obscure poetry is difficult, but (contrary to popular opinion), not all difficult poetry is obscure. Obscurity is a lack of clarity; it is a flaw.12 Difficulty is not a virtue in and of itself, but obscurity is always a defect. Marianne Moore wrote that "one should be as clear as one's own natural reticence allows one to be."13 This can be rephrased as, one should be no more difficult than necessary. But it may prove necessary to be very difficult indeed, although there are some poets for whom difficulty is an end in itself, either for the sake of a sense of superiority over the reader or other poets, or for the sake of a sense of rebellion or transgression. Some forms of "difficulty" are as rote as the most well-rehearsed stump speech. I never set out to be "difficult" in my poems, nor do I try to hide things from the reader. Moore asks, "How obscure may one be?" and replies, "I suppose one should not be consciously obscure at all."14

I take Moore's admonition to refer to the clarity of the materials, of the saying and showing itself, not of what it means or how it's to be interpreted. This is the clarity of an experience: the poem is an experience the reader has, and though one doesn't always know what the experience "means," one knows what happened, what one experienced. But if what happened isn't clear, then there's no possibility of making meaning out of it. Confusion results when the poem's constituent elements are unclear. As poet and critic Joan Houlihan points out, incoherence is neither mysterious nor difficult: it is just another source of boredom. Moore again: "Nor can we dignify confusion by calling it baroque."15 The poet should provide the reader with the elements out of which the meaning or meanings can be assembled or produced, and the pieces of the mosaic should be clear and distinct (like Descartes's ideas), even if their relations to one another are not immediately apparent. "Sometimes it appears to candid reflexion that great works of art give no meaning, but give, instead, like the world of nature and history itself, materials whose arrangement suggests a tropism toward meaning, order and form."16

The ideal reader is on the one hand willing and alert enough to actively participate in the poem's production of meaning and on the other hand demanding enough to insist that the poem provide the material with which to produce such meaning and perceptive enough to see whether or not these pieces actually do form some kind of gestalt, however unexpected its shape.


"To read a poem should be an experience, like experiencing an act."17 The idea of the artwork as an experience also produces a basis for aesthetic judgment. One can (and should) ask, "Does this artwork provide a unique, distinctive experience, one that hasn't already been experienced, known, understood?" Walter Benjamin describes shock and distraction as the modern mode of consciousness (or unconsciousness), in which most of our experience is not really experienced and doesn't actually exist for us at all. Although art should be the antidote to this nonexperience of distraction, most of what we read simply repeats and re-presents what has already been experienced (or nonexperienced). A real work of art makes us stop and pay attention. It breaks through our crust of habit and routine.

I believe that all artists want to communicate with some audience or another, though that potential audience may vary enormously in size and/or kind. If one truly cared nothing about making contact with others, however few or select (not every poem is for every reader, or even for the same reader at every time and in every mood), there would be no reason to make art. One could simply commune with oneself within the confines of one's own mind. But the will to communicate does not define the what or the how of communicating. A poem can communicate itself, in the way that a classical Greek statue or a painting by Willem de Kooning does. This is another way of saying that poems are, or should be, experiences in themselves, and not just accounts of or commentaries on experience; they should be additions to the world, not simply annotations to it. If people think of poems as mere road markers or sign posts to something else, it's no wonder that they don't want to read them. I would rather go to a place myself than look at a sign pointing out the direction to the place.

Those who define or evaluate a poem in terms of its content or subject matter are making a serious category mistake. Poems are utterances, but they are first and foremost aesthetic artifacts, events and occasions in language. They often contain propositional statements, but those propositions are, in Susanne Langer's term, virtual statements, the form of content, the shape of saying. It is this which distinguishes poetry from most other modes of discourse, in which the expressive or communicative function of language is dominant and in which the materiality of language is suppressed or ignored, or at best used only instrumentally to produce a desired effect in the reader or listener. As Ron Silliman succinctly and inclusively puts it, "Whether you are a new formalist or a slam poet, a visual poet or a language writer, the absolute materiality of the signifier, the physicality of sound and of the graphic letter, is the one secret shared by all poets."

Howard Nemerov notes that "The flat statement that poetry is or ought to be communication, even if it happened to be true, would be uninteresting. Some poetry, not necessarily the most interesting sort, has the clear intention of communicating meanings. Other poetry has the clear intention of deepening the silence and space about itself... Meanings, generally speaking, are derived from the world and meanings are communicable, but is the world communicable? The work of art imitates in the first place world, it does not immediately imitate meanings except as these occur in the world."18

Walter Pater famously asserted that all art aspires to the condition of music, and the musical analogy is very suggestive. On the one hand, music is intensely expressive, and on the other hand it's hard (at least with instrumental music) to pin down exactly what is being expressed. Also, music is by definition organized and ordered, or it is not music, just noise or random sound, and the "meaning" of a piece of music is inextricable from its structure. Similarly, a poem means as much through its form, its shape in space and time, as through its content or "subject matter." Poetry is a way of happening, as Auden wrote. The what of saying, though hardly insignificant or irrelevant, is something that poetry shares with any other mode of discourse or expression: it is how a poem happens that sets it apart.

A destination is also an end but, as Nietzsche wrote, the end of a melody is not its goal. Too often understanding is the prize you get after you have consumed the poem. Now that you have taken it apart to get the decoder ring, you're done with the poem—you can throw it away. I don't see poems as things I want to get over with, any more than I see life as something I want to get over with. The end of life is death, and we start dying from the minute we're born. But, as William Carlos Williams pointed out, on the road to the contagious hospital there are muddy fields full of new growth if we just take the time to look closely. We will get down that road soon enough. Death is contagious, people are always catching it; the time we don't take will be taken from us. There is no need to hurry oneself along.

I will allow Howard Nemerov the last word. "If poetry reaches the point which chess has reached, where the decisive, profound, and elegant combinations lie within the scope only of masters, and are appreciable only to competent and trained players, that will seem to many people a sorry state of affairs, and to some people a consequence simply of the sinfulness of poets; but it will not in the least mean that poetry is, as they say, dead; rather the reverse. It is when poetry becomes altogether too easy, too accessible, runs down to a few derivative formulae and caters to low tastes and lazy minds—it is then that the life of the art is in danger."19


Reginald Shepherd's five books of poetry, all published by the University of Pittsburgh Press, include Fata Morgana (2007), Otherhood (2003), a finalist for the 2004 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, and Some Are Drowning (1994), winner of the 1993 AWP Award. He is also the author of Orpheus in the Bronx: Essays on Identity, Politics, and the Freedom of Poetry (University of Michigan Press, 2008).


  1. Vernon Shetley, After the Death of Poetry: Poet and Audience in Contemporary America (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), pp. 3–4.
  2. Howard Nemerov, Reflexions on Poetry & Poetics (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1972), p. 24.
  3. "Poetry, Pleasure, and the Hedonist Reader," in The Eye of the Poet: Six Views of the Art and Craft of Poetry, ed. David Citino (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 25.
  4. "Idiosyncrasy and Technique," in A Marianne Moore Reader (New York: Viking Press, 1961), p. 172.
  5. Collins, p. 29.
  6. Nemerov, p. 25.
  7. David Crystal, How Language Works: How Babies Babble, Words Change Meaning, and Languages Live or Die (Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press, 2006), p. 188.
  8. Robert Kelly, "I'm Not Sure I Meant What You Said," Conjunctions 49 (2007), p. 434.
  9. Shetley, p. 7.
  10. Nemerov, p. 21.
  11. Shetley, pp. 6, 9.
  12. Vernon Shetley offers a different distinction between obscurity and difficulty, "using the former term to refer to those elements of language that resist easy semantic processing, and the latter for the reader's response to those elements. Obscurity, then, refers to features within a text, such as allusion, syntactical dislocations, and figurative substitutions, while difficulty refers to something that occurs between reader and text, one kind of possible response to textual obscurity" (Shetley, pp. 5–6). Shetley does not make clear why his terms could not just as easily be reversed (a reader could find a text obscure, hard to see, hard to read, because it is difficult).
  13. Moore, p. 171.
  14. "Humility, Concentration, and Gusto," in A Marianne Moore Reader, p. 125.
  15. Op. cit., p. 123.
  16. Nemerov, p. 30.
  17. Wallace Stevens, Collected Poetry and Prose (New York: The Library of America, 1997), p. 905.
  18. Nemerov, p. 30.
  19. Ibid., p. 30.

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