Difficult Poetry and Sarah Vap’s End of the sentimental journey

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In End of the sentimental journey/A Mystery Poem, Sarah Vap walks us through a line of inquiry, composing and sequencing thoughts, propositions, and considerations, which unfolds, as the book’s subtitle cues us, like a mystery.

The first poem, “First Clue: Difficulty” begins:

People often ask me: Do you mean for your poems to be so difficult? Why are they so difficult?

A shadow of a response that I always have: Why do you want them to be easy?

But what I mean is: What is “difficult” anyway? and, What is easy?

I begin to feel a little bit worried. (Am I difficult?)

And then I wonder: Does that mean other people are easy?

Hours later I might be asking myself: Is there such a thing as “good-difficult” and “bad-difficult”? “Good-easy” and “bad-easy”? And who gets to decide.

[…]

I read this book against the mental backdrop of a couple of articles I’d read about what Jeremy Paxman (a BBC broadcaster and recent judge for a big money literary prize) had to say about poetry. I hesitate to reference his commentary because when it comes to discussions about capital P- poetry, concern for and appeals to the ‘ordinary people’ are reductive at best, and insidiuously oppressive at worst. Still, the coincidence of his remarks and my experience with Vap’s book seemed cosmically aligned. A brief aside, before I belabor his provocations: the poetry “inquisition” Paxman dreams of already exists, though most ordinary folks might just call it a quality liberal arts education. Any literature and creative writing class—whether behind the lectern or desk—can attest.

This was also just a few days after the passing of Dr. Maya Angelou, whose poetry I was introduced to as a young girl. Listening to Michelle Obama speak at Dr. Angelou’s memorial service, I felt returned to a few of my highest hopes about art and literature. Her eulogy—as Angelou’s poetry did—moved me in a way that felt necessary and true. The contours of accessibility and difficulty as issues in poetry, at this point in time, seemed set in relief.

I’ve grown into a reader whose tastes lean towards the opaque, but I also love that which speaks to me without guile, ornament, or armor. When I first started writing poetry seriously, I was advised by men to whose opinions I defered that my work should avoid the personal and strive for the universal, and because of how and why I choose to write poetry, this notion of accessibility holds implications and complexities that go beyond a conversation about craft and audience. That is, if developing one’s craft is to find one’s voice, what does it mean to ‘universalize’ that voice?

While I concede that theirs is fair and sensible advice for most young writers, it’s akin to a father advising his daughter to pursue journalism or law instead of poetry (anak, how will you eat?!), and it is advice whose prescriptiveness fathoms the way things are, while remaining either oblivious to, or dismissive of, how Art means making that which confounds the way things are.

From “Danger, Cont.”, Sarah Vap quotes at length a startling passage from Derrick Jensen’s book, A Language Older Than Words:

During the nineteenth century, many vivisections routinely severed the vocal cords before operating on an animal. This meant that during the experiment the animals could not scream (referred to in the literature as emitting “high-pitched vocalization”).

[…]

What I mean is, there are some things we are willing to hear, and some things we are unwilling to hear. And we have very complicated strategies, even (or especially) in poetry, for not hearing what we don’t want to hear.

We have complicated strategies for cutting vocal cords.

This section appears towards the end of the book, and to preserve a future’s reader’s pleasure of its mystery unfolding, I’ll only speak to how Vap triangulates truths, connecting one disparate fact to another with an ease and familiarity that belies the structural complexity of her argument. Her plainness disarms and devastates. She proceeds with an unnerving earnestness, employing the exclamation mark to sublime comic effect. Her mode of investigation, her questions, and the examples she uses to layer and elaborate her initial analogy, are both outrageous and preternaturally coherent.

The subject of accessibility often frustrates me because, even as I’m incensed or impassioned by defenses or admonishments of ‘difficult poetry’, the surrounding discussion has ever felt like a red herring, or smoke and mirrors, or, some other cliché that means a rhetorical feint intending to distract (distraction being just one strategy of deception). The conversation is often foreclosed or overdetermined by a bottom line of ‘use’ and ‘relevance’. Given the space of an honest argument, ‘use’ and ‘relevance’ often reveal themselves to be no more (or less) universal than one’s personal experience, tastes, and preferences.

It’s for these, and many other reasons, that I did not want to review this book. At least, not in the conventional sense. Instead, I wanted to have a conversation with it. I wanted to graph and diagram and conduct panels and forums on its structure, form, and content. I wanted to collage, power point, and Ted Talk everything I felt and thought as I followed along. My reading experience was… exclamatory, punctuated with expletives, laughter, and moments of shocked stillness. A few of my reactions:

– I must hand deliver this to Paxman, and all other Paxmans of the world, and make them read it.
– I wish I had a classroom wherein I was given the privilege of making other people read it.
– If not a classroom, then at least the power to convince everyone in my Facebook feed to read it, so I can talk through what this book did inside my head.

End of the sentimental journey shifts the conversation about poetry’s use and relevance into a conversation about power, and intimacy, and about how difficulty is essential to a fully human experience. In short, it is a feminist mode of inquiry.

From “Against”:

I’m against any one tenor of language becoming so beloved, so performed, so privileged, that it becomes—like the holy language of Catholicism of my childhood and the correct language of political correctness of my young adulthood—ineffectual.

Without the capacity to express a wide range of human situations, foibles, intentions, or experiences.

I felt allied with this book’s discoveries and uncertainties. I wanted very badly to engage it in an intelligent way, but found myself stalled by a genuine wonder that such a thing exists, and that it is called poetry.

And I feel pride and excitement that it is called poetry. Vap, throughout the book, insists and recognizes and names this work—a poem. This is important to me, not just as a poet, but as a thinker—as someone who values problems and the methods with which we begin to approach or understand them. This work posits (or perhaps, newly re-affirms) that poetry is a finer logic, a more apt mode of inquiry for investigating the human condition. It is premised not epistemologically, but emotionally. Its conclusion is neither an end or a resolution, but a dilation. The mystery’s reveal dazzles gradually, and aslant.

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