Saturday, April 1, 2006

this morning's reading

In this review of a collection of Elizabeth Bishop's unpublished work, David Orr, says something that I liked a lot, talking about subtlety in art:

Dana Gioia, a longtime Bishop advocate and current chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, gets only a few paragraphs into an essay on her reputation's dramatic rise in the poetry world after her death before asking, almost apologetically, "Is Elizabeth Bishop overrated?" "Perhaps a bit," he answers, which presumably is what you say when you've gotten in the habit of thinking about poetry so much that you forget Bishop's poems are less well known to many people than the lyrics to "Total Eclipse of the Heart."

So why do we feel compelled to elevate Bishop while simultaneously worrying that we're raising her too high? In large part, the answer has to do with the difference between difficulty and subtlety. Difficulty is a beloved concept in the poetry world, because it's the crux of an old but cherished argument: Are poems too obscure? Or not obscure enough? The debate is a canned one, of course, but it lets all parties make their favorite points, and everyone is therefore happy to argue over "difficulty" at the drop of a hat. The reality, though, is that most readers and writers aren't actually made nervous by "difficulty," at least as the term is usually meant. For one thing, difficulty is straightforward — you either figure out what's difficult, or you don't. You might fail, but you aren't going to be misled. (In this sense, and in its implicit endorsement of hard work, difficulty is a concept that has long been central to our shared identity as Americans). Subtlety is different, though. Subtlety wants to be missed by all but the chosen few; it is aloof, withholding and aristocratic — sometimes manipulative and always disguised. It has less to do with theory and technique, which can be learned mechanically, than with style and sensibility, which require intuition. It wants to be looked at but not seen. It's unnerving.

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