The Charm of Difficulty
by Robert Glück
One afternoon in the fall of 1965, at UCLA, I noticed a small sign that advertised an on-campus poetry reading by Robert Creeley. The reading was starting right away. A poetry reading, I said to myself with wonder. Aren't I a poet? Shouldn't I go to this reading?
I had no idea who Creeley was, and I doubted that the administration would deliver the real poetry goods to us students. I sat in the back of the huge auditorium. The reading was sparsely attended. Creeley was already at the podium. He was wearing a corduroy jacket and sandals -- rather informal, I thought, even inappropriate. On the other hand, two professors in dark suits were sitting on the stage emitting a gruelingly clerical sense of occasion. Someone had stationed a potted palm by the podium, signifying the presence of culture.
If you've ever heard Creeley read, you will know exactly what I heard. His voice is choppy and averted; he seems to trip at the end of each short line. He read poems that I found later in his first big collection, For Love , poems that would become famous. He laughed at something in a poem -- what was funny?
Another poem was about buying rubbers -- weird. I couldn't make out what he was doing. Here was a "living author," a rare bird on campus. In classes, our exemplary modern was T. S. Eliot. The study of Dylan Thomas, safely dead for twelve years, took us to the brink of the new.
Listening to Creeley, I became nauseated. Shouldn't I, a poet, be able to understand any poet writing in the present time? Yet here was an aesthetic that did not admit me. Creeley seemed to be making up his poems from the inside as he went along. After the reading, a crowd of black-suited vultures surrounded Creeley and carried him off to dismember at some reception. Creeley looked so totally pained that I thought, Maybe he is the real thing. One of the poems Creeley read that afternoon is called "I Know a Man":
As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always talking -- John, I
sd, which was not his
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what
can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a gaddam big car,
drive, he sd for
Christ's sake, look
out where yr going."
In retrospect, Creeley's poem is not hard to understand. It has a narrative and can be taken as a little allegory. What was my problem? Literature and art show us how we experience the world. Creeley's poem said to me, "You think the world has a unified meaning, but that's false. The world makes itself up as you make it up, piece by piece, arbitrarily, out of your own perceptions. If you don't know how you perceive the world, then you don't know who you are." As Creeley wrote in an essay from 1966, "The road, as it were, is creating itself momently in one's attention to it, visibly, in front of the car. There is no reason it should go on forever, and if one does so assume it, it very often disappears all too actually."
Two things strike me. First, DIFFICULT might really mean that a pre-planned meaning does not exist. A very disjunct experimental poem may be easy to understand, because I am supposed to "co-write" it--that is, experience it through my own set of associations, rather than "de-code" the work and "unpack" its symbols. The degrees of coherence and disjunction we recognize in the world (and turn into literature) represent our deepest engagement with language, and so with reality. Second, innovative writing wants to keep me in the present, which can be experienced as a kind of DIFFICULTY. Most writing invites me to fall into a guided daydream that has its own telescoped sense of time. In much innovative writing, I am thrown back into my own present, the present of the reading instead of the present of a story. Until that becomes normal, it's hard work, like learning to meditate.
To an astouding degree our culture does not know itself, and by that I mean you and I don’t know ourselves, perhaps starting with—and caused by—the effect we have on the world. We can’t seem to unite feeling and event. Our culture seems reluctant to communicate with its own realities; our labor takes place in conditions of raw capitalism a world away, death and old age are locked up in institutions, our wars don't make it to the news -- yet we are titillated by sex and violence in the form of distractions and false crises of every sort that keep the whole culture slightly crazed. The horror and spendor of our lives exceed this threadbare vision. If there is a reason for difficult writing, it is to break this shallow "fictional" plane where most of our life is spent.
My nausea during Creeley’s reading was caused by the lack of recognition. I could not see my own experience (organization of meaning, sense of time) reflected back to me in his poems, so his poems seemed to cancel my experience. No wonder I felt sick. In a way, it was the nausea of plenty -- too many possible meanings, too much awareness of time. My own discomfort led me to poetry magazines that printed Robert Creeley's work, and from there I began to piece together the literature of the present that would become important to me.
Now when my students complain that they hate innovative writing, I warn them: Strong feeling -- even hatred -- suggests a first acquaintance with something you may come to love.
The Stranger, Spring Literary Supplement, Seattle, April 20, 2000