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Reading the Difficulties

Dialogues with Contemporary American Innovative Poetry

Thomas Fink, Judith Halden-Sullivan, Charles Bernstein, Carrie Conners, Thomas Fink, Kristen Gallagher

Publication Year: 2014

The bold essays that make up Reading the Difficulties offer case studies in and strategies for reading innovative poetry.

Definitions of what constitutes innovative poetry are innumerable and are offered from every quarter. Some critics and poets argue that innovative poetry concerns free association (John Ashbery), others that experimental poetry is a “re-staging” of language (Bruce Andrews) or a syntactic and cognitive break with the past (Ron Silliman and Lyn Hejinian). The tenets of new poetry abound.

But what of the new reading that such poetry demands? Essays in Reading the Difficulties ask what kinds of stances allow readers to interact with verse that deliberately removes many of the comfortable cues to comprehension—poetry that is frequently nonnarrative, nonrepresentational, and indeterminate in subject, theme, or message.

Some essays in Thomas Fink and Judith Halden-Sullivan’s collection address issues of reader reception and the way specific stances toward reading support or complement the aesthetic of each poet. Others suggest how we can be open readers, how innovative poetic texts change the very nature of reader and reading, and how critical language can capture this metamorphosis. Some contributors consider how the reader changes innovative poetry, what language reveals about this interaction, which new reading strategies unfold for the audiences of innovative verse, and what questions readers should ask of innovative verse and of events and experiences that we might bring to reading it.

Charles Bernstein / Carrie Conners / Thomas Fink /
Kristen Gallagher / Judith Halden-Sullivan / Paolo Javier /
Burt Kimmelman / Hank Lazer / Jessica Lewis Luck /
Stephen Paul Miller / Sheila E. Murphy / Elizabeth Robinson /
Christopher Schmidt / Eileen R. Tabios

Published by: The University of Alabama Press


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Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-iv


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pp. v-vi


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pp. vii-x

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Reading the Difficulties

Thomas Fink and Judith Halden-Sullivan

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pp. 1-14

In the soothing (and parodic) voice of the self-help guru, Charles Bernstein reassures readers in his “The Difficult Poem” that “Difficult poems are normal. They are not incoherent, meaningless, or hostile” (Attack of the Difficult Poems 4). He also helps readers identify whether they have encountered...

Thank You for Saying Thank You

Charles Bernstein

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pp. 15-17

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Reading and Reading

Elizabeth Robinson

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pp. 18-27

It’s a truism that any text worth reading is worth reading again. This is particularly the case with difficult texts such as formally experimental poetry. Yet it’s worthwhile in any case to give close consideration to what happens to the text and reader after multiple readings. One might expect, from a more...

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Of Course Poetry Is Difficult / Poetry Is Not Difficult

Hank Lazer

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pp. 28-40

For some reason, students and teachers of poetry—often unwilling readers of poetry who are reading the poem because it is “required” or because it has been “assigned”—feel compelled to announce, “I don’t get it.” Let’s think about that claim. What would it mean to “get” a poem? If we interrogate the...

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Articulating a Radical and a Secular Jewish Poetics: Walter Benjamin, Charles Bernstein, and the Weak Messiah as Girly Man

Stephen Paul Miller

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pp. 41-69

The above two epigraphs sound more like critical nonstarters than starting points. Charles Bernstein’s statement asks for the seemingly impossible. How can one go back through time, total devastation, and languages one might not know and continue someone else’s pre-World War II project? Bernstein...

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Reading the Posthuman Subject in The Alphabet

Burt Kimmelman

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pp. 70-92

The Alphabet by Ron Silliman, a most remarkable and singular achievement in its great ambition and very presence, might call to mind the Western world’s early encyclopedias. These massive undertakings were products of societies that had become markedly literate. Indeed The Alphabet, a huge book that...

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Cooking a Book with Low-Level Durational Energy; or, How to Read Tan Lin’s Seven Controlled Vocabularies

Kristen Gallagher

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pp. 93-104

Reviewers of Tan Lin’s Seven Controlled Vocabularies (7CV) have produced some interesting misreadings. Some mistake the story of someone (“I”) meeting his wife at a Macy’s event for straight autobiography; others regard the reproduction of Laura (Riding) Jackson’s Foreword to Rational Meaning as...

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Engaging with (the Content of) John Bloomberg-Rissman’s 2nd NOTICE OF MODIFICATIONS TO TEXT OF PROPOSED REGULATIONS

Eileen R. Tabios

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pp. 105-110

In response to interviewer Tom Beckett’s question, “Where did/does poetry begin for you?” John Bloomberg-Rissman replies: “It begins for me in a constraint-based making of new texts out of a chorus of other voices/writings, other others, other sames, in a voyage of discovery. . . . [But] I don’t approach...

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Bursting at the Seams: Exploding the Confines of Reification with Creative Constraints in Sleeping with the Dictionary

Carrie Conners

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pp. 111-126

The opening line of “Daisy Pearl” above reads like a riddle, challenging the reader to look closer for clues to figure it all out. By the time one reaches “ Frozen / ones and fruity ones,” the reader will most likely think of margaritas. As it turns out, “margarita” is a woman’s name, the Latin word for...

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The Game of Self-Forgetting: Reading Innovative Poetry Reading Gadamer

Judith Halden-Sullivan

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pp. 127-145

The poem—in this case the “difficult” contemporary American innovative poem—is an event that opens possibilities for more events. With each reading, the poem offers a deliberate, unique presence. The poem is play that invites play. The poem makes possible a self-forgetting that opens for thinkers...

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The Utopian Textures and Civic Commons of Lisa Robertson’s Soft Architecture

Christopher Schmidt

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pp. 146-156

What is Rubus armeniacus? How does Lisa Robertson’s essay on this botanical invader to the Pacific Northwest—commonly known as Himalayan blackberry—constitute a manifesto about globalism, urban architecture, and, most of all, Robertson’s own dandy poetics? Such is the power of this Canadian...

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Problems of Context and the Will to Parsimony: Reading “Difficult” Recent U.S. Poetry

Thomas Fink

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pp. 157-177

In his 1982 essay “Migratory Meaning,” Ron Silliman—with the help of linguists Charles Fillmore and Paul Kay’s conceptual apparatus—identifies and questions fundamental ways in which readers make sense of texts. “Envisionment,” a reader’s sense of a unified understanding of a text, depends upon...

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Some Notes on bpNichol, (Captain) Poetry, and Comics

Paolo Javier

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pp. 178-187

1. In 2006, the Canadian cartoonist Seth (né Gregory Gallant) offers the following provocation to Marc Ngui in the spring issue of Carousel: “I have felt, for some time, a connection between comics and poetry. It’s an obvious connection to anyone who has ever sat down and tried to write a comic strip”...

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Crossing the Corpus Callosum: The Musical Phenomenology of Lisa Jarnot

Jessica Lewis Luck

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pp. 188-200

Lisa Jarnot’s Night Scenes, published in 2008, begins with a casserole of poems cooked up with some Gertrude Stein, slices from Alexander Pope and Oulipo, and a pinch of Dr. Seuss. It’s definitely a dish best served out loud, as shown in “Zero Onset”:...


Sheila E. Murphy

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pp. 201-202

Works Cited

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pp. 203-214


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pp. 215-218


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pp. 219-229

E-ISBN-13: 9780817387204
E-ISBN-10: 081738720X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780817357528
Print-ISBN-10: 0817357521

Page Count: 239
Illustrations: 1 illustration
Publication Year: 2014

OCLC Number: 874720344
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Reading the Difficulties

Research Areas


Subject Headings

  • Poetry -- Explication.
  • Poetics.
  • American poetry -- History and criticism.
  • Discourse analysis, Literary.
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