Difficulty Paper-like Exercise

Last week in my New American Poetries course (a literature course on post-modern poetry) with David Kaufmann we discussed what according to The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty would be a “boring” or “intimidating” poem. Before class everyone was required to read several poems, including Robert Lowell’s “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” which at first glance is a tedious poem written in seven parts, saturated in challenging language relating to nautical terms and imagery with metaphors and connections to both religion and the literary classic Moby Dick.

I did not realize until later while reading The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty, but the professor’s method of opening class discussion to the reference-heavy poem was similar to the exercise of a difficulty paper. He asked everyone to read the last section of the poem (due to time constraints and having other poems to discuss) and to take a few minutes to write down any ideas we had about the last section of the poem. Then, after everyone completed jotting down notes of their thoughts on the last section of the poem, as a class we were supposed to analyze this last section. However, when Professor Kaufmann asked what we noticed about the poem, there was more silence than talk and we did not get much beyond that it seems there are a lot of references to Moby Dick. Someone also connected the dedication at the beginning of their poem with prior knowledge that the poem was written for a relative of Lowell’s who drowned while serving in the Navy. Our class is full of MFA Poetry students and other graduate level writers, and most of us are familiar with the process of analyzing poetry; however, even at experienced levels a poem can still be challenging and require what some students discovered in The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty as some “extra work.”

Professor Kaufmann then revised his question to ask, “Why is this poem difficult? What is getting in the way of understanding the poem?” With this new approach our class was examining the parts of the last section that hindered a clear reading of what was going on in the poem. The discussion started to open up. We decided in order to understand the poem, it would help to be familiar with nautical terms like “gaff” and “shoal-bell.” Also, we discussed how the syntax was tricky. The last section seems to be addressed to the Atlantic Ocean; however, some parts contained modifiers that were confusing to trace back who or what was being modified. For example, “It’s well;/Atlantic, you are fouled with the blue sailors, sea-monsters, upward angel, downward fish:/ Unmarried and corroding, spare of flesh/ Mart once of supercilious, wing’d clippers/ Atlantic, where your bell-trap guts its spoil/”

What does supercilious mean in this context? “Unmarried and corroding” is modifying or referring to what? This poem seemed syntactically convoluted, as well as coded with references similar to T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” where you need to refer to footnotes every line.

We then went on to point out the references to other literature and to Old Testament passages, particularly with the last line of the poem “The Lord survives the rainbow of His will.” Through the use of prior knowledge of Biblical stories, we related the address to the Atlantic and other lines to the flood and Noah’s Arc. At the end of the flood there was a rainbow, which was God’s promise that he would not flood the world again so long as man agreed to treat the blood of man as sacred to not be shed.

We ended up realizing, that Lowell’s poem does not sum up with a message in this last line, rather his poem is diagnostic instead of remedial. The open-endedness of the poem and back and forth between God and what is happening in the Atlantic is intentional to show the speaker of the poem’s conflict with religion and this pact made between God and man.

This activity, which I related to a Difficulty Paper although on a smaller-scale, is also how literature had been approached post-World War II when the GI Bill of Rights was signed, which upped college enrollment by at least 30%. The accessibility of college put scholars of all different backgrounds on the same level, so in order to teach literature to both the elite (who would be familiar with the likes of Shakespeare) and the undereducated in the same class (who might not be familiar with specific authors), a new way of approaching the analysis of literature, called new criticism, was developed. New criticism involved reading the text itself without bringing in outside sources or knowledge of other criticism in order to analyze the work.

One thought on “Difficulty Paper-like Exercise

  1. Professor Sample

    It’s great to hear what we might think of as a “difficulty exercise” in action! I’m also doubly pleased for this reason: last year Professor Kaufmann taught ENGL 610, and he based his syllabus in part on a syllabus of mine from my Spring 2008 version of ENGL 610. Which means he and his students read TEAPOD. Which means that what you participated in during his class was not simply coincidentally like a difficulty paper — it was directly inspired by TEAPOD!

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