Why are you so difficult…

Prior to this class, it had been six years since I had critically analyzed a poem in an academic setting. During my freshman year of high school, I was a Creative Writing “major” at the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts. During my analysis classes, we would read poems, talk about how they made us feel, and … move on. I never really felt like I was learning about poetry during these sessions; in fact, I felt like I learned more from reading and sitting with my peers’ poems, than reading and vaguely interpreting published authors’ poems.

With that said, I’ve found most of the poems that we’ve read in Experimental Poets of Color to be difficult. While taking this class, I am also taking Tricia Rose’s How Structural Racism Works class. Consequently, I engage with academic dialogue on the discriminatory structures and institutions that restrict and/or prohibit black bodies and voices every day. As one may imagine, it is both refreshing and depressing to have designated times and spaces (Alumnae Hall 212, LIST 120) for engaging with PoC creation/existence when white folx can engage with their own work at any time and in any place. So, while I’m thrilled to know that What I Say: Innovative Poetry by Black Writers in America exists, I hate that it needs to be searched for. 

With this perspective in mind, I thought Bernstein’s “checklist” for difficult poems was interesting. Given that Charles Bernstein is a white man, I believe that we may have different takes on his checklist.

do you find the poem hard to appreciate?

Hard to appreciate… what does that mean? Do I think that reading the poem is a waste of my time? Do I think that the poem doesn’t have any value in the context of the world? Oftentimes, when I’m reading something challenging, bitterness precedes appreciation; once I’ve sat with the piece for awhile, I often end up greatly appreciating it, but I’m not sure that makes the piece any less “difficult” than it originally was.

do you find the poem’s vocabulary and syntax hard to understand?

I don’t have too many qualms about this question; I think difficult vocabulary and syntax is one of the first things that I, and other readers, consider when deciding whether a poem is difficult.

are you often struggling with the poem?

Struggling in what sense (does it matter what sense)? If I’m reading a poem that reminds me of trials and tribulations that I’ve faced throughout my life, and I’m having a hard time reading the piece because I’m getting emotional, does that count as a struggle? It’s unlikely that someone without those life experiences would struggle with the poem in the same way; in fact, maybe they wouldn’t struggle at all. Then again, maybe they would — maybe they would find it difficult to read and interpret a piece of work by an author whom they cannot empathize with (see: anyone who believes we live in a post-racial society).

does the poem make you feel inadequate/stupid as a reader?

Sometimes, I’m not sure whether a poem is making me feel inadequate, or whether its subject material is making me feel inadequate. For instance, I have zero formal or informal background in religion; consequently, when we come across religious references in class that most people seem to know, I generally feel pretty stupid a reader. That “stupidity” is not limited to that exact poem, but I’m not sure that I feel comfortable blaming the poem for my lack of knowledge.

is your imagination being affected by the poem?

I’d argue that all poems can affect my imagination.

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3 Responses to Why are you so difficult…

  1. emmaaxelrod says:

    I love that you are answering Bernstein’s questions with questions of your own. While there is nothing inherently authoritative about asking questions, there does seem to be in the way he is going about it. He is presenting his questions, much like his guidelines for the poetry profile, as definitive standards we should use to frame our reaction to difficult poetry. By asking questions of his questions you turn this dynamic back around on him and open a discourse. It’s pretty rad.

    You say that given that Bernstein is a white man you might have different takes on his checklist. Were the questions you asked him back an elaboration of that, or do you have more to say about this? I would be interested to hear it. Also, in what other ways does his position as a white man affect his commentary on difficult poetry? In the assignment, Erica questioned his use of the term “profile.” Do you have thoughts on this?


  2. Erica Mena says:

    Yes, great great questions!! I too wonder how much we can blame a poem (or any other piece of artwork) for our responses, and what the point in doing something like that is. Does it have to do with questions of responsibility as well as response? I also wonder what questions you might ask as guides / approaches to difficult poems from your subject positionality? Bernstein’s are clearly coming from his position as an expert white cis male critic and poet; what would other (equally if not moreso) valuable approaches to reading poems look like?


  3. Pingback: Class Notes Thurs 10/13 | Experimental Poets of Color

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