Responding to Steve Kowit’s “Mystique”

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  • March 11, 2008

This groundbreaking essay first appeared in Poetry International #3 in 1999. The issue is currently out of print–we only have one dogeared copy left in the office–so we decided to reprint the essay, and you can view it in its entirety as a separate post. By way of introduction, we’ve asked Renee Lorion to address how Kowit’s essay reads nearly a decade later and how the issues he addresses have changed in that. Enjoy:

Steve Kowit’s 1999 essay “The Mystique of the Difficult Poem” is the kind of thorough exploration that reminds us what we like so much about discourse and the exchange of ideas, and what, unfortunately, is often missing from that discourse: frank, well-stated opinions. It is at once a meditation on difficulty in poetry, a response to Harold Blooms’ much-discussed introduction to his 1997 Best of the Best anthology, a response to the responses, and a call to poetic action. At the center of the conversation is the state of poetry, its readership, its purpose, its accessibility, and its future in our literary and popular culture. While I tend to have a low attention span for ‘writers talking about writing,’ this conversation is vital and makes me wish we were more engaged in critical discussions about what is right and wrong with contemporary poetry.

Kowit begins with a critical examination of the idea of ‘difficult poetry,’ and takes its defenders to task. He makes important distinctions here between poems in which several readings are required and poems which ultimately, after many readings, still yield no concrete images or ideas. He is not arguing that a poem has to “mean something” or add up to a great truth. He is arguing that a great poem usually has something you can hold on to after the music is gone. While a poem doesn’t have to give everything up on the first reading, it must offer enough in the first reading to merit a second. If more light comes through with each pass, then the reader is rewarded, and returns, and returns.

What does obscuring everything in a blur of language, as a matter of principle or form, do for the reader? This is a larger question that can be asked of any creative endeavor. What is to be shared between creator and observer? Why bother to make art when we could be doing a myriad of more profitable things with our time? We make art because we feel compelled to share, in some form, moments of our human experience. As poets, we try and express the inexpressible, to offer up some version of our view of the world, and yes, we “use” language to do this. Whether we write in the secrecy of our rooms, late at night, or whether we write consciously for an imagined group of readers, our impulse to share our experience is the same. I, like Kowit, find it hard to pull even an image, much less a shared experience, from the example he cites from Reginald Shepard’s response to Bloom. Is the experience one of confusion? The shortcomings of language? A reflection on meaninglessness itself? “Though the joy of pure poetic music and language certainly has its rewards,” Kowit writes, “they seem ultimately smaller rewards than such poetry would have were the same quality of language tethered to intelligible subject matter and perception.”

By questioning the praise of difficult, unknowable poetry, Kowit eloquently questions the defense of the Western canon by Bloom (the Bloom essay, They have the numbers; we, the heights is available at, several responses are at This defense removes poetry to a self-appointed group of academics who really “understand” poetry and its purpose. Ten years later, this debate, while not totally settled, has moved towards inclusion. We have largely embraced multicultural voices in literature, and most universities teach and honor the work of underrepresented groups. So if we have moved away from elitism, have we also moved away from Bloom’s idea that “…our situation needs aesthetic and cognitive difficulty”? What does our situation need? What should our poetry look like? Kowit offers a rousing paragraph of ideas at the close of his essay. He challenges us to stop ducking our responsibilities to the reader. He challenges us to return some of the luster that we have a hard time admitting has been lost. He’s asking us to write poetry worth reading, so that people will go on reading poetry. At the risk of sounding sentimental and overly expressive – effects, Kowit notes, we have been taught to strictly avoid in our writing — could anything be more exciting?

–Renee Lorion