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This article is taken from PN Review 161, Volume 31 Number 3, January - February 2005.

Difficulty, Democracy, and Modern Poetry Peter McDonald

I ought to begin by presenting my credentials: according to the editor of Bloodaxe Poems of the Year 2003 , you have before you one of 'poetry's sly academic spin-doctors', who is among (if he is not, indeed, the sinister ringleader of) 'The puritanical members of that bogus male cult of literary seriousness and poetic difficulty'. 1 It will not, I imagine, be possible for you this afternoon to judge whether you are being addressed by a bogus male; but the other details of that all too warmly-glowing reference are certainly to the point: 'seriousness', 'difficulty', 'academic' are all words with which I intend to come to grips today, and my subject obliges me speak of modern poetry in the light of these terms, if light it is. I add to them, however, another term: democracy, a word which has been serviceable to all kinds of interests over the years, but which I hope to take, and use, seriously in relation to poetry and its reading.

According to some views of critical activity, words with the stern ring of 'difficulty' ought already to have cleared the room; indeed, one contributor to an internet poetry site has taken me to task for the milder statement that 'in teaching poetry, the place to start is form'2 with some rather lumbering irony: 'Hello? Peter, can I butt in here? Can you hear that noise? It's not buffalo, it's the audience stampeding towards the door.'3 Well, it is perhaps good manners ...


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