In 1950, Harvard hosted a conference called “The Defense of Poetry” where Randall Jarrell delivered his famous lecture on “The Obscurity of the Poet.” To Jarrell the obscurity of contemporary poetic expression was less an absolute value and more the result of the decline of readers who relied on literary texts as a primary means of cultural edification. Twenty-eight years later, George Steiner (in “Text and Context,” the first essay in his renowned treatise, On Difficulty) came to the same conclusion, albeit with a different treatment of the subject matter, and offered a more draconian solution to the problem of the evaporating degrees of literacy among English readers. I have digested the essays of both men for the purpose of exploring what resonance their ideas have today.
Jarrell’s essay makes the following argument: Most modern poetry is considered obscure by the general reader. However, the general reader would have difficulty reading Milton’s Paradise Lost or any play by Shakespeare. Even Matthew Arnold confessed that there was “hardly a sentence in King Lear that he hadn’t needed to read two or three times.” If clarity is the “handmaiden of popularity,” Jarrell states, the simple poems suffer an early demise, while Dylan Thomas, who (in the mid-20th century) was seen as a corrupter of a whole generation of young British poets, is still “famous in obscurity.” Poets have historically been criticized for being difficult to understand. While most readers today would consider John Dryden the plainest of poets, a contemporary critic of his remarked that Dryden “delighted to tread on the brink where sense and nonsense mingle.” Dryden himself found Shakespeare “scarcely intelligible.” First reviewers of T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “even those who admired it most, found it almost impossible to understand; that it was hopelessly obscure seemed to them self-evident.” Critics spoke of Robert Browning’s “The Bishop Orders his Tomb at St. Praxed’s Church” in like fashion. Yet, most college-educated readers of poetry are now capable of making an intimate connection with these poems and find them highly evocative.
Jarrell’s essay continues, “we cannot even be sure what people find obscure,” noting that his European students found Robert Frost’s “Home-Burial” much more difficult to understand than Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” Often, when we hear that a reader can’t understand contemporary poetry, we somehow assume that he has laying around “worn copies of Agamemnon, Phèdre or the Symbolic Works of William Blake.” In fact, Jarrell says, the general public has established a phantom criterion by which “every form of contemporary art is condemned.” The art of the Saturday Evening Post predominates over that of the museum. Hence, it is “in the name of an easy past that he [the general reader] condemns the difficult present.” The general reader has even lost the ability to focus on the basics of linguistic communication. There appears to be a “systematic unreceptiveness, a queer unwillingness to pay attention even to the references of pronouns, the meaning of the punctuation, which subject goes with which verb, and so on.” Jarrell notes, that “good poetry” must be read “with an attitude that is a mixture of sharp intelligence and of willing emotional empathy, at once penetrating and generous.”
When you begin to read a poem you are entering a foreign country whose laws and language and life are a kind of translation of your own; but to accept it because its stews taste exactly like your old mother’s hash, or to reject it because the owl-headed goddess of wisdom in its temple is fatter than the Statue of Liberty, is an equal mark of that want of imagination, that inaccessibility to experience, of which each of us who dies a natural death will die.
Jarrell wistfully harkens to the reader of a different era, one whose classical education cultivated a fine sense in literature through ancient as well as then-contemporary texts. Instead, he observes, most general reading nowadays is confined to the newspapers. The speeches of Jefferson and Lincoln, who dreamed that every man would be literate some day, are incomprehensible to most modern voters because their vocabulary and syntax are more obscure than anything they have read or heard. The men of letters who choose to communicate on a level that is consistent with the greats have lost the cultivated reader that wealth and education formerly prepared. For Jarrell, the “poet lives in a world whose newspapers and magazines and motion pictures and radio stations and television stations have destroyed, in a great many people, even the capacity for understanding real poetry, real art of any kind.”
Whereas Goethe praised the writer who pushed the envelope of language, novelist Somerset Maugham (Jarrell’s contemporary) felt praised when a reader reported that he didn’t have to look up a single word in Maugham’s work. Thus, the bar is set conveniently lower for both contemporary author and his reader. Jarrell claims that “popular writing” leaves little to the imagination, so the great works of the imagination that once delighted (referring to the works of previous centuries) now leave the modern reader flat and dull “because they do not supply the reader’s response along with that to which he responds.” Jarrell all but predicts the rise of the graphic novel and pre-eminence of televisual media over the slow delivery system of the written word.
Jarrell provides a fitting summation: Art represents the acquisition of indispensable truths learned over the course of civilization, “those differing and contradictory truths which seem nevertheless, to the mind which contains them, in some sense a single truth.” However, if we acquiesce in the belief that “art has always been a matter of a few, we are using a truism to hide a disaster.” If our society tailors its tastes to an “elaborate or sophisticated substitute for art, an immediate and infallible synthetic,” we risk undermining the foundation of the entire culture. The democracy that offers its citizens “a show of education, a sham art, a literacy more dangerous than their old literacy,” will become one of the “People’s Democracies which share with any true democracy little more than the name.” Jarrell appears to exalt the democratic system’s ability to afford equality of opportunity, but also acknowledges that differences in native talent become fictionalized as snobbish or Fascistic if they mean any differences of real importance can exist among people. [This prediction was fulfilled in the era of George W. Bush who made “elitists” political and cultural pariahs.] Having reposed great confidence in the democratic system’s ability to choose wisely, Jarrell nevertheless ends by embracing the preeminence of the genius, whose consecrated duty is to respond to art’s higher calling, conceding that there will always be a fight to rescue literature from the baser instincts of the general population.
The loss of cultivated readers is beyond cavil despite the internet’s presence in most facets of modern existence. Unfortunately, these conditions even exist at the highest levels of academia. In Jarrell’s essay, “The Age of Criticism,” written about the same time as “The Obscurity of the Poet,” Jarrell commented that doctorial programs were turning out Ph.D.’s who could read Middle English, but had not read any contemporary poetry; or who could analyze Tennyson’s “Ulysses” but had not read The Odyssey or The Divine Comedy. The age of specialization had thus fractured the model of the classical education.
Almost three decades later George Steiner described the deterioration of comprehension as a deepening crisis that strikes at the heart of Western Civilization. His analysis begins at the most elemental level in the act of reading:
a “text” is generated where the reader is one who rationally conceives of himself as writing a “text” comparable in stature, in degree of demand, to that which he is reading. To read essentially is to entertain with the writer’s text a relationship that is at once recreative and rival. It is a supremely active, collaborative yet also agonistic affinity whose logical, if not actual, fulfillment is an “answering text”.
In order to conceive an “answering text” for reading literature of the previous centuries, Steiner contends that a reader must know, at the very least, the “hierarchy of values” on which the “intellectual-social-political architecture of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the nineteenth century were built.”
Steiner saw these structures “in ruins,” purposely abandoned by the culture that inherited them. He contrasts our plight with the “essential bookishness” of Soviet intellectual life and the very fabric of suppression that define Russian literature as a whole, where the “subversive poem, novel, satirical comedy, underground ballad has always been, is, will continue to be, the primary act of insurgence.” In fact, such literature “has always been samizdat”: “No society reads more vehemently, to none is the writer a more indispensable presence.” Noting that the cases of Tolstoy, Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn show the balance of power is “nearly equal, at some level,” between the state and the single writer’s voice, Steiner ironically comments, “What Western regime flinches at a poem?” This comment echoes Jarrell, who also recounted a brief international survey of countries that not only knew their poetic heritage, but whose citizens, from businessmen to busboys, commonly wrote poetry. Steiner finds a comparison of Western literature after Thomas Mann with that produced “underneath” the Soviet Union from Blok and Mandelstam to the present, “in respect of humane necessity, of philosophic stature, of sheer dimension,” is “unsettling.”
Western civilization relied upon the “scriptural-patristic cannon on the one hand, the Greek-Latin on the other, and the perpetual interplay, critical and conjunctive, between Hebraic and Hellenic lineage of texts, very largely generated and organized the shapes of western public speech and personal identity among the educated.” Steiner believes these values have been “now eroded,” to the extent that their very invocation is considered “a piece of elitist nostalgia.” Knowledge of these texts has been eviscerated by the “organized amnesia” pervading modern education. “The familiarity with scripture, the Book of Common Prayer, with the great current of liturgical allusion and ritual routine, which is presumptive in the speech and inference of English literature from Chaucer to Auden, is largely dissipated.” The near total eclipse of Latin and Greek language education has further ramifications for the “ready apprehension of the language, of that central historicity, density of cross-reference, felt syntactic and semantic elaboration which were, to be sure, related to Atticism and Latinity, but which also had their own prodigal life.” The causes of the downfall are “too manifold” to allow for easy diagnosis, but Steiner observes that the breakdown of old frameworks of high culture corresponds with the “the collapse of those hierarchies of aristocratic, mandarin or bourgeois power-principles which a high culture embodies, articulates and transmits.”
In addition to political populism that gave rise to universalized forms of mass education, Steiner says the distractions of everyday existence impede our ability to give “the vertigo of attention which bends the scholar’s back and blears the eye.” “The pace of being, the surrounding noise levels, the competitive stimulus of alternative media of information and entertainment . . . militate against the compacted privacy, the investments of silence, required by serious reading.” Society is more familial, more participatory and collective. Since music meets these socio-emotive needs, “new humanistic literacies . . . are musical, not textual.” Our culture’s reaction to this collapse has been diverse as the causes, the one extreme end sweeping out all tradition in favor of “ancient dreams of total renewal, of prelapsarian spontaneity. At the opposite pole there is desolation, more or less stoic.”
“The ‘text’ flourishes in a context of authority,” which can be metaphysical (“dogma or transcendent value-system”), pedagogical, or political. Reaching the peak of the essay, Steiner argues that, whatever attributes a democratic society means for mass education, there is “no guaranteed congruence between the continued agency of class or ‘difficult’ texts – such as have constituted our articulate culture and shared code of designation – and the pursuit of egalitarian or economically or socially redistributive models.” Relations between “cultural” and “democratic” ideals are, “at best, uneasy.” Reaching a different conclusion that Jarrell, Steiner states: “Creative literacy was always the disciplined, authoritatively transmitted possession of the few.” So Steiner prescribes the specialized training of those inclined to be readers in the classical tradition, “to proceed, step by step, from the near-dyslexia of current student reading-habits to that enigmatic act of penetrative elicitation, the sense of the passage being perceived and in fact ‘realized between the lines’ as Heidegger instances it in his readings of Hölederin.” If not done, the ‘text’ will cease to be “the vital circumstance, the informing ‘context’ of our being.”