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A Mirror To Life

On ‘difficult’ writing

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

I used to resent books that required me to make a lot of effort. This was especially the case when reading poetry: I felt I could tell at a glance if a poet was being wilfully obtuse or sloppily longwinded. If they failed this test, I put the book down. I suspect that some of this response was down to my own insecurities as a reader, or to overzealously patrolling the boundaries of what, as a young and aspiring writer, I thought was the ‘right’ kind of literature. Yet within a few years my reading, and in turn my own writing, began to change. Like so much learning, this was a gradual process of being challenged, coming to terms with something new, and eventually expanding my comfort zone. I’m now frequently drawn to writing which embraces difficulty.

I suspect I wasn’t alone in my initial reservations. From teaching literature classes I know that readers are often resistant, at least at first, to writing which seems difficult. In part that may be because the language we encounter in everyday life is often there to smooth our way, rather than to challenge us. Signposts would be useless if they were ambiguous. News reports are written in a style which means events can be ascertained at a glance, often at the expense of nuance. Advertising uses simple slogans to offer the certainty that the latest cereal or smartphone will make us more fulfilled and successful. In the literary world, creative writing tutors often advise students to prioritise clarity and ensure that the language doesn’t draw attention to itself. The implication is that gnarly writing will obscure the characters, places or events described, and that the main priority for a writer is to ensure these can be easily visualised. Literary critics echo this when they condemn writing that is challenging, obscure, or stylistically unusual with words like ‘pretentious’.

An effect of this favouring of linguistic simplicity is the implication that anything which isn’t instantly comprehensible is elitist. But, as Declan Kiberd points out whilst discussing James Joyce’s famously difficult novel Ulysses, many tasks done by ordinary people every day are highly complex or frustratingly hard. Perhaps tasks like building a house or caring for a sick child are so commonplace that their difficulty is overlooked. Imagine the cultural shift that would occur if these were acknowledged to be difficult, and builders and carers were praised for embracing tasks which by their nature lack simple solutions. John Keats coined the term ‘Negative Capability’ as a way to explain how a ‘Man of Achievement’ in literature is capable of ‘being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.’ This surely isn’t the reserve of poets and playwrights, however — anyone comforting a crying child will have a good intuitive sense of negative capability in action.

If all writing avoided complexity, ambiguity, contradiction and incomprehensibility, literature would end up being weirdly divorced from everyday life, which is often complex, ambiguous, contradictory and incomprehensible. When literature requires us to stop and think, to read a stanza or a paragraph twice, or to accept confusion as its state of being, it’s asking us to read in a different way to how we approach an instruction manual or a news website. The difficulty might be down to obscure vocabulary, such as the avalanche of geological terminology near the start of John McPhee’s Basin and Range, a book about the formation of the North American continent. McPhee seems to relish the effect of unusual, specialist words in his otherwise remarkably clear introduction to the unfathomability of deep time. Similarly, writing might break the normal grammar of one complete sentence following logically on from another: examples include poetry by Douglas Kearney and Susan Howe, both of whom make poems comprising of clippings from other texts montaged together on the page, with phrases sometimes overlapping and even concealing each other.

Some books have unusual structures, such as Toni Morrison’s novel Jazz, influenced by the music it so thrillingly evokes. Others explore difficult ideas, as Louise Glück does in her poetry collections which examine heavy philosophical and psychological topics in simple-seeming language. A work of literature might have a very wide frame of reference, meaning you spend as much time on Wikipedia as with the book (Ulysses again); on the other hand it might be grounded in a culture removed in time or place from your own, meaning the content or stylistic conventions are unfamiliar. Edwin Morgan’s translation of the sixth-century Latin poem ‘Altus Prosator’ is a case in point, with its dense religious imagery appearing impenetrable until you realise the original poem was composed in the same religious community as The Book of Kells, and like that work is saturated with visual detail so dazzling it appears to be pulsing in front of your eyes:

Irrigating clouds showering wet winter from sea-fountains
from floods of the abysses three-fourths down through fishes
up to the skyey purlieus in deep blue whirlpools
good rain then for cornfields vineyard-bloom and grain-yields
driven by blasts emerging from their airy treasuring
desiccating not the land-marches but the facing sea-marshes.

This is a hymn to creation, and the compressed syntax makes it feel like everything is happening at once. The poem is often attributed to Saint Columba and the reader, like the medieval poet, is left breathless and disoriented by the majesty of the world around them.

I’m convinced that none of the writers I’ve mentioned set out to exclude readers. Instead, they had something new, challenging or provocative to say, and thought long and hard about how to say it. When people are learning to write – whether they are aspiring poets or journalists or nursing students – they are generally told that clarity of expression is essential. This is excellent advice, but I can’t help feel there are times as a writer when it’s hard to do justice to difficult subjects in clear and simple language. In fact, it might be wrong to deal with them in a straightforward manner. These difficult subjects, as I’ve already suggested, don’t need to involve involuted philosophical theories; normal experiences such as love and grief have been written about for millennia, but authors have never exhausted their complexity.

The natural world, and our place in it, is another endlessly complicated topic, which contemporary poets are exploring with increased urgency. One difficult book that has inspired my own writing is Sylvia Legris’ poetry collection Pneumatic Antiphonal, which is all about birdsong. Poets have long sentimentalised or anthropomorphised birdsong (Percy Shelley’s ‘To a Skylark’ compares the bird to a lovesick, ‘high-born maiden’), but Legris does something startling and original. For example, her poem ‘Lore: 2 (decoy)’ begins:

Historiated hiss alarms and Zeet! whistles. The first note interwoven with reed and rectrices. Intervertevibrato. Interstitial pishing. An onomatopoeic anatomy.

This is far removed from Romantic ode-making. Short sentences and the prose-poem form mean this opening section never settles into the beguiling, comforting rhythms which characterise Shelley’s nature poetry. The vocabulary is challenging, drawing from ornithological science as well as music, and colliding terms together to form new words. There is no sense of a narrative perspective, of the poet sharing how the sound of a bird’s call makes her feel. A later section of the poem reveals the bird in question to be a swallow, but the initial lines do nothing to show that to a first-time reader. All of the poems in Pneumatic Antiphonal follow a similar template. This is certainly a collection which could be labelled ‘difficult’, and I wonder if the occasional print copy has taken flight from the hands of a frustrated reader.

I was captivated by Legris’ collection when I first read it, because it demonstrates a fundamental difficulty of our relationship to other creatures. When people listen to birdsong, they can never really understand its meanings and nuances, nor the ways in which calls are perceived by other birds. We can never imagine ourselves into the mind and body of another species. In these poems, the difficulty of the language brings to the fore how other birds are to us, how remote their communication is from our own, even though human history has been played out to a background of birdsong. At the same time, Legris’ poems create their own rich sonic world — sometimes all you’re left with as her reader is a new kind of opaque verbal music to go along with the impenetrable calls of swallows and hummingbirds.

I’m now a convert to poems which trade in difficulty, and writers who trust their readers to do some interpretive heavy lifting. Sometimes everyday life is complex and confusing, and our perception of the world around us leaves as many questions as answers. It can be comforting and even invigorating to read work which itself embraces complexity and confusion. When art holds a mirror up to life, it would be deceitful if it always presented a clear and simple picture.

Garry MacKenzie is the author of the nonfiction book Scotland: A Literary Guide for Travellers and the book-length poem Ben Dorain: A Conversation with a Mountain, which was shortlisted for a Scottish National Book award and an Arts Foundation Fellowship.

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