Arduity: Surprising (shocking) difficulty


Semantic shock and breathtaking surprise.

Both Geoffrey Hill and J H Prynne have identified the unexpected as a core element of difficult poetry. Hill specifies that such poetry should create 'semantic shock' that goes hand in hand with 'ethical shock'. Prynne is of the view that the element of surprise in poetry can sometimes be so startling as to take the reader's breath away.

We can be startled in many different ways. Word choice, imagery, formal structure and the development of themes are just some of the elements that can jolt us. Some surprises can be amusing whilst others are terrifying. Celan's use of 'Ashglory' (Aschenglorie in the original) is an example of how the small step of putting two words together can be both startling and deeply disturbing, creating both the semantic and the ethical shock at the same time.

A good example of the kind of shock that can be caused by difficult verse is seen in a letter written by John Peale Bishop to Edmund Wilson two weeks after the publication of 'The Waste Land'. Peale is asking for some clarification but also says:

"..I have read The Waste Land about five times a day since it came into my hands. It is IMMENSE, MAGNIFICENT, TERRIBLE. I have not yet been able to figure it all out...I don't think he has ever used his solen lines to such terrible effect as in this poem. And the HURRY UP PLEASE IT'S TIME makes my flesh creep."

This shows that readers don't need to 'understand' all the references and allusions in a poem to be very deeply affected by it. This power to unsettle is what gives difficult poetry its value.

Surprising / shocking examples.

Being surprised by poetry is a subjective experience so what follows are examples taken from my own reading.

J H Prynne's recent use of 'fad' as a verb ("fad on / fulsome tumult") in 'As Mouth Blindness' is both surprising and brilliantly accurate.

At some point during 'The Skaters', John Ashbery breaks off from the poem to give a fairly defiant defence of his own poetics. This kind of frame breaking activity, if it's done well, is always both surprising and gratifying for the reader.

Geoffrey Hill's angry and abusive response to his critics in 'The Triumph of Love' is both surprising and innovative even if it isn't entirely effective.

John Matthias' 'Trigons' contains: ".....oh just look it up / at / it's all pretty complicated..." which is both startling and very funny.

Prynne's use of 'fuckwit' in "Streak~~~Willing~~~Entourage~~~Artesian" is startling because it's so out of place with the rest of his work.

Charles Olson's poem "a Plantation a beginning" from the Maximus series is surprising because it appears to be very casual whilst voicing a number of very complex ideas.

John Milton's description of God in Paradise Lost is so surprising and effective that nobody has felt able to do it since.

Geoffrey Hill's 'The Mercian Hymns'uses a number of formal devices in surprising ways to create a uniquely innovative and startling poem.