The pleasures of difficult literature

by Blake Campbell / Arts Columnist • October 8, 2014

The most pleasurable reading experience in my recent memory was when, for the third time, I pored over the entirety of “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction,” one of Wallace Stevens’ major long poems. I came home from work one evening this summer to find that my family was out. An uncommon quietness had settled over the house, and I promptly decided to take advantage of it. As my two German shepherds slept soundly in the next room over, I reclined on the couch and, word by word, began to make my way through Stevens’ symphonic masterpiece.

Reading Stevens’ unusual but endlessly rewarding poems has caused me to reflect recently on the value of difficult literature on the whole. We understand that works like Paradise Lost and Moby-Dick are considered the great achievements of writers of English, but do we understand why? What places do such works have outside of high school and college English curricula? What good will it do us to set aside time in our daily lives to not just read, but to sift through the nuances, wordplay, rhetoric, themes, and insights of a true literary masterpiece?

Considered within the context of Stevens’ longer poems, these questions are particularly challenging. His works’ status as great literature has been hotly debated by critics, who have variously characterized them as either drawn-out and pretentious, or the preeminent American poems of the twentieth century. Stevens fancied himself an aesthetic theorist as well as a poet, and used overtly philosophical and academic diction frequently in his works. In today’s cultural climate where poetry has become all but impotent, poetry about poetry is an especially hard pill to swallow.

And yet I have found the experience of reading and rereading “Notes” to be immensely pleasurable. Although it is indeed a “theoretical” work in one sense, an examination of one man’s ideas about the place of poetry in the modern world, it has, like all great poems, a profound emotional center. It gradually reveals its humanity to the reader; so subtle and reserved is Stevens’s style that the reader can be moved by lines as apparently cryptic as “My house has changed a little in the sun” or “You will have stopped revolving except in crystal” without fully understanding what they mean. And the more one reads the poem, the more the poem makes sense. So while my first and second times reading it were enjoyable enough, it was the third time through that I finally grasped the full weight of Stevens’ words, resulting in a reading experience as sublime as any I have ever had.

But the question remains: why spend so much of one’s free time on a literary work of such difficulty? Couldn’t Stevens have made his ideas more accessible to audiences? Well, yes, but at the expense of emotional and intellectual depth. The 31 cantos of “Notes” explore love, the natural world, growing old, erotic anguish, and politics with a startling originality and poignancy, but the reader must be willing to do a little bit of work to reap the poem’s rewards. This is inconceivable to many in a world where we have become used to having bland stand-ins for human emotions spoon-fed to us by Nicholas Sparks, Beyoncé, or any number of other omnipresent cultural figures standing before the masses to “sing jubilas at exact, accustomed times,” as Stevens once wrote. But patient re-readings of “Notes” have given me many genuine insights into my own life and feelings, which is why poetry remains the closest equivalent to religion in my life. 

Verbal density and high diction are not the only obstacles with which great literature challenges readers. Harold Bloom, perhaps the most famous American literary critic of our time, has called Cormac McCarthy’s ultraviolent Western Blood Meridian “the greatest single book since Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying,” but admits that he was so disturbed that it took him three tries to finish the novel. I remember my own displeasure after reading Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea at the age of 16. Although I made my way through Hemingway’s bleak novella with relative smoothness, even finding the simplicity of his style downright infantine at times, I kept asking myself, “What’s the point?” I was still asking myself the same question after I finished the book, and felt that an ocean of incredibly meaningful allegory and symbolism had passed over my head.

I am a better reader than I was at 16, and would probably better appreciate The Old Man and the Sea if I reread it today. But perhaps “What’s the point?” isn’t as flippant a question to ask of a literary work as it may seem. It is only human nature to search for meaning in things, literary or otherwise, and we have a right to expect a lot from books that are trumpeted as masterpieces. But with such expectations must come an understanding that the search for meaning—in literature as in life—is never finite, but by its very nature an ongoing process. And it is only when we comprehend these things that we can find any value in reading literature at all.