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Difficulty, Academia, and the Young

V: I’ve been quite disappointed recently at how polarized the poetry world can be. When I’m in London speaking to young poets and people there, they like a range of poets — then I get back to Oxford, and talking to graduate students it can seem sometimes like the only poets taken seriously are Hill, Muldoon, Prynne — these are the serious poets.

CR: You can see why. There is a great difference between those poets, but they all have something in common — difficulty. If you’re a graduate student — this is professionalization again — you want to admire something that other people can’t read, where there is work for you. Those three poets represent an employment opportunity. They wouldn’t like Elizabeth Bishop because she is, relatively speaking, quite easy, although she isn’t really that easy — as you know. But there are so many local pleasures, and you persist. ‘Filling Station’ — how can anyone resist it? Well these people can. Because it’s witty, it’s lovely, and they understand it. It appears to offer them no opportunity … what critics want is a pommel horse they can pirouette around, which will continue to support them while they’re being brilliant themselves. Elizabeth Bishop — well, there’s no place for your brilliance, because the thing itself is brilliant. It’s made out of glass. It’s a piece of sculpture. Young people always like difficulty. You want to be outdistancing people. When I started doing a doctorate, it was on Coleridge’s philosophy — and the reason I did it was because I wanted to be able to say to people at a dinner party, ‘I think if you’d read Kant’s Critique der Reinen Vernunft, you’d know that … ’ I wanted to be able to silence people. It’s a terrible impulse. But of course in the end I couldn’t get through Kant, it was unintelligible. But that’s what I wanted to do — so I recognise this impulse in all these graduate students. I suffered through it myself once...

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