Transient Difficulty: Utterances Towards Obscurity

  • Davide Castiglione


This chapter analyses four poems by Stevens, Crane, Thomas and Hill. These poems belong to the typology of transient difficulty: the resistance they engender is a precondition for the disclosure of meaningfulness. Accessibility in them is thwarted by a reliance on textual rather than cultural schemas. For instance, while Strand’s accessible poem is built around the ‘forlorn lover’ cultural schema, Stevens’s poem alludes to the ‘parable’ textual schema. Accordingly, their themes feel more mediated by semiosis. These poems oppose greater resistance at the readability level too, due to a systemic syntax/line mismatch and a more extensive use of novel metaphors. The RIDs they prompt congruently indicate a looser grasp of their meaning: lower intersubjective agreement, longer reading times and tendency to elaborate rather than paraphrase content.


  1. Adamson, S. (1998). The Literary Language. In R. Lass (Ed.), The Cambridge History of the English Language, 3, 1476–1776 (pp. 539–653). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  2. Adamson, S. (1999). The Literary Language. In S. Romaine (Ed.), The Cambridge History of the English Language, 4, 1776–The Present Day (pp. 589–692). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Adamson, S. (2006). Deixis and the Renaissance Art of Self-Construction. Sederi, 16, 5–29.Google Scholar
  4. Altieri, C. (1984). Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Arnold, M. (1909 [1852]). To Marguerite. In The Poems of Matthew Arnold. London and New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Bakhtin, M. M. (1981 [1934–1935]). Discourse in the Novel. In M. Bakhtin (Ed.), The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, trans. C. Emerson & M. Holquist, ed. M. Holquist (pp. 258–422). Austin: University of Texas Press.Google Scholar
  7. Bates, M. (2011). Stevens and Modernist Narrative. Wallace Stevens Journal, 35(2), 160–173.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Bergson, H. (1983 [1907]). Creative Evolution. Lanham: University Press of America.Google Scholar
  9. Bering J. (2011). The Belief Instinct. The Psychology of Soul, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life. Norton: New York.Google Scholar
  10. Bloom, H. (2007). Foreword to J. F. Nicosia. Reading Mark Strand: His Collected Works, Career, and the Poetics of the Privative. London: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  11. Bromwich, D. (2001). Muse of Brimstone. The New York Times, March 11.Google Scholar
  12. Brooke-Rose, C. (1958). A Grammar of Metaphor. London: Secker and Walburg.Google Scholar
  13. Carney, J. (2008). Unweaving the Rainbow”: The Semantic Organization of the Lyric. Journal of Literary Semantics, 37, 33–53.Google Scholar
  14. Coleridge, S. T. (1997). The Complete Poems. London: Penguin.Google Scholar
  15. Cook, E. (2007). A Readers’ Guide to Wallace Stevens. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  16. Crane, H. (1972 [1926]). White Buildings. New York: Boni & Liveright.Google Scholar
  17. Crane, H. (1997 [1926]). O My Land, My Friends: The Selected Letters of Hart Crane (L. Hammer & B. Weber, Eds.). New York: Four Walls Eight Windows.Google Scholar
  18. Culler, J. (2002 [1975]). Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature. London: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Dante, A. (1990 [1307]). Il Convivio (The Banquet) (R. H. Lansing, Trans.). Garland Library of Medieval Literature, Ser. B. N.Google Scholar
  20. Davies, M. (2008–). The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA): 560 million words, 1990–Present. Available online at
  21. Dean, T. (1996). Hart Crane’s Poetics of Privacy. American Literary History, 8(1), 83–109.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. De Sade. (2016 [1785]). The 120 Days of Sodom. London : Penguin Books.Google Scholar
  23. Dillon, G. L. (1978). Language Processing and the Reading of Literature. Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  24. Dixon, P., Bortolussi, M., Twilley, L. C., & Leung, A. (1993). Literary Processing and Interpretation: Towards Empirical Foundations. Poetics, 22, 5–33.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Emmott, C., Sanford, A. J., & Morrow, L. I. (2006). Capturing the Attention of Readers? Stylistic and Psychological Perspectives on the Use and Effect of Text Fragmentation in Narratives. Journal of Literary Semantics, 35, 1–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Fabb, N. (2014). The Verse-Line as a Whole Unit in Working Memory, Ease of Processing, and the Aesthetic Effects of Form. Philosophy Supplement, 75, 29–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Fowler, R. (1986). Linguistic Criticism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  28. Fletcher, J. G. (1923). The Revival of Aestheticism. The Freeman, December 19, 355.Google Scholar
  29. Grossman, A. (2007). On Communicative Difficulty in General and “Difficult” Poetry in Particular: The Example of Hart Crane’s “The Broken Tower. Chicago Review, 53(2–3), 140–161.Google Scholar
  30. Halliday, M. A. K., & Matthiessen, C. M. I. M. (2004). An Introduction to Functional Grammar (3rd ed.). London: Arnold.Google Scholar
  31. Hassan, A. (2012). Annotations to Geoffrey Hill’s Speech! Speech!. Glossator Special Editions. Retrieved from
  32. Herman, D. (1994). Textual ‘You’ and Double Deixis in Edna O’Brien’s A Pagan Place. Style, 28(3), 378–411.Google Scholar
  33. Hill, G. (1971). Mercian Hymns. London: Andre Deutsch.Google Scholar
  34. Hill, G. (2001). Speech! Speech!. London: Penguin Books.Google Scholar
  35. Hühn, P., Goerke, B., Plooy, H., & Schenk-Haupt, S. (2016). Facing Loss and Death: Narrative and Eventfulness in Lyric Poetry. Berlin and New York: De Gruyter.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Jagt, R. K., Hoeks, J. C. J., Dorleijn, G., & Hendriks, P. (2014). Look Before You Leap. How Enjambment Affects the Processing of Poetry. Scientific Study of Literature, 4(1), 3–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Kintsch, W. (1998). Comprehension: A Paradigm for Cognition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  38. Leech, G. (2008). Language in Literature. Style and Foregrounding. London: Pearson Longman.Google Scholar
  39. Leech, G., & Short, M. (2007 [1981]). Style in Fiction. London and New York: Longman.Google Scholar
  40. Leggett, B. J. (2007). Stevens’ Late Poetry. In J. Serio (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Wallace Stevens (pp. 62–75). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Levin, S. R. (1971). The Conventions of Poetry. In S. Chatman (Ed.), Literary Style: A Symposium (pp. 177–196). New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  42. Martindale, C. (1991). The Clockwork Muse: the Predictability of Artistic Change. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  43. Mazur, E. (2017). Towards a Theory of Imagination: Reading Wallace Stevens Through Modern Philosophy. Retrieved from
  44. McHale, B. (2004). The Obligation Toward the Difficult Whole: Postmodernist Long Poems. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.Google Scholar
  45. Mellors, A. (2005). Late Modernist Poetics: From Pound to Prynne. Manchester: Manchester University Press.Google Scholar
  46. Mutter, M. (2011). Wallace Stevens, Analogy and Tautology: the Problem of a Secular Poetics. ELH, 78, 741–768.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Perloff, M. (1985). The Dance of the Intellect: Studies in the Poetry of the Pound Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  48. Peskin, J. (1998). Constructing Meaning When Reading Poetry: An Expert-Novice Study. Cognition and Instruction, 16(3), 235–263.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Pound, E. (1920). Hugh Selwyn Mauberley. London: Ovid Press.Google Scholar
  50. Press, J. (1963). The Chequer’d Shade. Reflections on Obscurity in Poetry. London: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  51. Riffaterre, M. (1984 [1978]). Semiotics of Poetry. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  52. Robinson, F. M. (1981). Stevens’s Trompe l’Oeil: Visual Comedy in Some Short Poems. Wallace Stevens Journal, 5(2), 3–10.Google Scholar
  53. Serio, J. (2007). Introduction. In J. Serio (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Wallace Stevens (pp. 1–7). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Sinding, M. (2008). Lapsed Latin: Etymology, Image Schemas, and Multilingual Wordplay in Stevens’s “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”. Wallace Stevens Journal, 32(1), 108–126.Google Scholar
  55. Steiner, G. (1978). On Difficulty. In G. Steiner (Ed.), On Difficulty and Other Essays (pp. 18–47). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  56. Stevens, W. (1950). The Auroras of Autumn. New York: Knopf.Google Scholar
  57. Styles, E. A. (2006). The Psychology of Attention. Hove and New York: Psychology Press.Google Scholar
  58. Thomas, D. (1988 [1934]). Collected Poems 1934–1953. London: J.M. Dent and Sons.Google Scholar
  59. Tsur, R. (2011). The Rhythmical Performance of Milton’s “On His Blindness”. Problems and Solutions. In Formal Methods in Poetics. A Collection of Scholarly Works Dedicated to the Memory of Professor M. A. Krasnoperova (pp. 202–223). Lüdenscheid: Ram-Verlag.Google Scholar
  60. Vendler, H. (2007). Stevens and the Lyric Speaker. In J. Serio (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Wallace Stevens (pp. 133–148). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Wales, K. (2011 [1990]). A Dictionary of Stylistics (3rd ed.). Harlow: Longman.Google Scholar
  62. Woods, N. (2006). Describing Discourse: A Practical Guide to Discourse Analysis. London and New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  63. Yaron, I. (2010). Obscurity and Dylan Thomas’s Early Poetry. Retrieved from

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Davide Castiglione
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of English PhilologyVilnius UniversityVilniusLithuania

Personalised recommendations