Sometimes it’s only when a difficulty is removed that we realise what it was doing for us. […] Our brains respond better to difficulty than we imagine. In schools, teachers and pupils alike often assume that if a concept has been easy to learn, then the lesson has been successful. But numerous studies have now found that when classroom material is made harder to absorb, pupils retain more of it over the long term, and understand it on a deeper level.
Difficulty is perhaps the taproot that makes poetry different from and (dare I say it?) more nourishing than prose. Prose exists to make ideas go down easy. It explains, it contexts with a vengeance. Even the greatest novel does yeoman duty of creating a setting that defines and restricts its characters’ actions; within the setting, the novel tells us the character stood and left the room or peered over the rim of the canyon or whatever; the novel, as a rule, presents motivations in order to explain why characters are in a particular setting and why they do what they do there.
Poetry, lyric poetry especially, tends to set all this aside. Actions are presented as quiddities, without explanation, and even when explanations seem to be present they are equivocal, polyvalent—in short, difficult. If the research referred to above is correct, this difficulty is what brings readers of poetry back to poems again and again. Surely few readers of prose reread even the most poetic prose as frequently poetry readers reread poems. This makes poetry the most durable of forms, the most rewarding, the most satisfying.
In my experience, readers who dislike poetry typically dislike complexity, period. They prefer the reassuring hand of the patient narrator at their elbow, the pleasures of characters they can “identify with”—that is, characters who have been sufficiently explained so that they, the readers, themselves feel explained and clarified.
Poetry can be clear as snowmelt trickling across the tundra, but the story it tells is full of shadows, which tell us something new and different every time we look into them.
by Philip Booth
On the steep road
curving to town, up
through spruce trees
from the filled-in canal,
there have been five houses, always.
But when I sleep
the whole left side of the blacktop
clears itself into good pasture.
There are two old horses,
tethered. And a curving row
of miniature bison, kneeling,
each with his two front hooves
tucked in neatly under the lip
of the asphalt. I am asleep.
I cannot explain it. I do not
want to explain it.