Difficulty and Accessibility Liz Cashdan
I recently went to an exhibition of street photography from Sheffield Museums Archives in the Graves Art Gallery. I came away feeling thoroughly stimulated and working out how I might use some of these photos, set partly in Sheffield but also across the world’s streets, as a way into writing poetry. There were many names I had never heard of and others who have haunted my memories of photographs over the years, like Andre Kertesz, Henri Cartier Bresson, Paul Nash.
As I left the exhibition I passed an advert screen headed Mindfulness suggesting viewers should attend evening sessions to find out how art can “calm body and mind.” What! I want art, whether it’s visual or written to stimulate body and mind, not calm it. Sounds more like Classic FM with its smooth classical music. Let’s have accessibility by all means but only after we’ve worked through the difficulties and earned our access. And let’s go away from our viewings and readings still feeling concerned about meanings, context, genre and style, wanting to see more, read more, research more.
If texts are hard to decipher we may give up, stop reading and not bother with them. On the other hand, if texts challenge us, we may come away feeling we have achieved something as a reader, made reading a possible re-writing of the original text. I’ve always found Geoffrey Hill’s poetry difficult, hard to work out his meanings on a first quick read, and I’ve been tempted and given in to simply saying “I don’t much like Geoffrey Hill.” But recently, I’ve read what he has had to say himself about writing.
“The word accessible is fine in its place; that is to say, public toilets should be accessible to people in wheelchairs; but a word that is perfectly in its place in civics or civic arts is entirely out of place, I think, in a wider discussion of the arts,” Hill said in an interview in The Guardian in 2002.
Hill pointed out that difficulty is democratic because it supposes that ordinary people can read and understand difficult texts. He has also said:
“We are difficult. Human beings are difficult. We're difficult to ourselves, we're difficult to each other. And we are mysteries to ourselves, we are mysteries to each other. One encounters in any ordinary day far more real difficulty than one confronts in the most ‘intellectual’ piece of work. Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are? Why doesn't music, why does poetry have to address in simplified terms, when if such simplification were applied to a description of our own inner selves we would find it demeaning? I think art has a right—not an obligation—to be difficult if it wishes.”
(quoted in: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/geoffrey-hill
But it’s not only in poetry that difficulty appears as an issue for readers: it also appears in fiction. Will Self wrote with reference to fiction: “The hallmark of our contemporary culture is an active resistance to difficulty in all its aesthetic manifestations, accompanied by a sense of grievance that conflates it with political elitism.”
Maybe we no longer want to read Henry James’ long sentences or James Joyce’s puzzling structures and prose or even Jane Austen’s turn of phrase – we’d rather just watch on TV. But are we willing to look at new experiments in structure and language like Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (Random House 1997) or Eimear McBride’s mixed up sentences in A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (Faber 2014)?
Amit Chaudury, writing in The Guardian on difficulty in prose and poetry (prompted it seems by the death of Geoffrey Hill in July 2016), claims that one marker of recent attempts to make prose style less difficult, is the elimination of the semi-colon, though he detects it may now be returning. He sees Virginia Woolf’s complicated use of punctuation in To the Lighthouse as her way of writing complicated ideas about her characters. By contrast, difficult poetry is signalled more by the nature of the thoughts themselves as expressed in complicated language. This is what makes Geoffrey Hill’s poems difficult to read. And I suspect what puts me off as well, is that when I can make sense of what he is saying, I don’t like it anyway because it’s too philosophical and Hill’s philosophy is based in the religious and spiritual. Strangely, Chaudury thinks TV is now the writing site where difficulty is more likely to be encountered. (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/07/amit-chaudhuri-praise-difficult-language And I used to think that TV is for people who are too lazy to read books. I know better now.
All the above instances refer to difficulty as encountered by readers. However, at the OCA we may be readers a lot of the time, but on Creative Writing courses students will be judged and assessed largely on their writing. I don’t suppose any students, whether writing prose, script or poetry, set out to produce writing that their readers will find difficult, but it may happen. In that case, should tutors advise students to write in a way that their readers will find more accessible? I reckon that’s a dangerous question. It makes me think of Harold Pinter’s plays where I’ve often been confused at a first performance or reading. And of course Pinter always answered people who asked for an explanation of what his plays meant with a refusal to explain because the play itself was the explanation. Or parallel to that Eliot’s dictum that “the meaning of a poem to a particular reader is whatever satisfies that reader the most.”
click here to see 'point of view in Elliot's Poetry'
The viewpoints of poets themselves have been collected in Strong Words(ed. W.N. Herbert, Bloodaxe 2000). In his introduction, Herbertquotes James Fenton: “When you’re actually engaged in the process of writing, you must always be writing into the dark.” I suppose negotiating the dark is always difficult.
Maybe we all have to have the courage to be brave in our writing and brave in our reading.