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Difficult Poems

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This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.

In his new book of essays, Attack of the Difficult Poems, poet, critic, and professor Charles Bernstein writes elegantly about poetry in the context of the classroom, technology, and our society as a whole. Bernstein has established digital and audio poetry archives at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Buffalo, among other places, and he has written widely about how technology—especially the ubiquity of recording—has changed the place of poetry in our society.

Although most of the essays in this collection focus on twentieth century and contemporary verse, Attack of the Difficult Poems manages to offer fresh angles on age-old poetry debates. In the weeks since reading Attack of the Difficult Poems, I continue to find myself dwelling on his ideas regarding the teaching of poetry—especially the “difficult poems”—in higher education.

Let’s face it. From our students’ point of view, the AP® English Lit exam might as well be titled Attack of the Difficult Poems. The poems covered in the exam—neatly paired with multiple choice questions—are my students’ weakest area, according to my test stats.

One reason for this may be that the “difficult poems” of the 20th century simply don’t lend themselves to the straighforward nature of multiple choice questions. Bernstein confronts the issue of these modern poems in his essays—poems that necessitate punctilious attention to the text, a readiness to accept obscure alustions, and fantastic feats of meter. Bernstein appreciates those who opt for more “accessible” text, but he still believes that these “difficult” poems should be taught:

¨ I can´t help but feel that the unwillingness to teach difficult or challenging or unconventional work is based less on good intentions than on condescension: the false belief that students are not smart enough to understand anything other than the most artless art.  (Just between you and me, it turns out that lots of students get enthusiastic about much of the poetry that most high school and college English teachers have long since redlined, but are bored to tears by the poetry of uplift foisted upon them.)"

Bernstein admits that “difficult poems are not popular,” and “difficult poems are hard to read,” but ultimately assigns great value to reading, understanding, and teaching them:

"Smoothing over difficulties is not the solution! Learning to cope with a difficult reading of a poem will often be more fulfilling than sweeping difficulties under the carpet, only to have the accumulated dust plume up in your face when you finally get around to cleaning the floor."

It’s with this elegant language that Bernstein relates his avant-garde sensibility throughout the collection, turning from dealing with difficult poems to the effects that sound recordings have on our experiences with language to the practical roles of university education. Readers of Attack of the Difficult Poems will discover that Bernstein’s ideas and revelations about poetry will stick with them, and, hopefully, some will find—as I did—a rekindled excitement in verse.

®AP is a trademark registered and/or owned by the College Board, which was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse, this product.