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MARCH 2023

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Worse Words

Rodney McMillian, <em>Couch</em>, 2012. Couch and cement. Courtesy the artist and Maccarone, New York/Los Angeles.
Rodney McMillian, Couch, 2012. Couch and cement. Courtesy the artist and Maccarone, New York/Los Angeles.

Charles Bernstein wrote “a handy checklist of five key questions” to answer the question, are you reading a difficult poem?

1. Do you find the poem hard to appreciate?
2. Do you find the poem’s vocabulary and syntax hard to understand?
3. Are you often struggling with the poem?
4. Does the poem make you feel inadequate or stupid as a reader?
5. Is your imagination being affected by the poem?1

He suggests if you have answered any of the questions in the affirmative, you are probably dealing with a difficult poem, but if you need further confirmation, a list of symptoms follows. The final symptom is “sensory overload; or negative mood.” According to Heidegger we are always in mood, and mood is a fundamental way we have of being in and belonging to a world. So even this moody descent, precipitated by a tough text or painting might be a kind of present; a gift of mood.

As a teacher of painting I will sometimes assign a difficult text which induces a state of confusion in students. Confusion is a negative mood, and Karla McLaren writes of confusion that it requires one to “honor this time-out and stop looking outside yourself for answers.”2

British psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas, writes, “ is possible to be both a liberal believing in a parliamentary world and yet capable of developing a Fascist frame of mind…it can indeed subvert the democratic mind.” The fascist state of mind is split into parts; doubled. The good artist and the fascist co-exist in the same person, one part of which is unconsciously transferring the guilt to the other part. This transfer and compartmentalizing is a way of unloading the difficulty, and builds a need for external objects, (other people) who are used to represent the shadow parts of the self. When difficulty, opposition, or frustration arise, instead of an internal muddle or conflict, the likelihood of blame and othering increases. The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips wrote, “There is… something that is structural to human relations right from their very beginning; and that is, that if someone can satisfy you they can frustrate you. Only someone who gives you satisfaction can give you frustration.”

Bernstein goes on to make an argument for (readers and writers of) the difficult poem, and for not glossing over the difficulty, but instead digging in. He wants to assure you that you are normal, and that although difficulty is not popular, this also is not a bad thing. He isn’t just writing about the difficulty a student feels when encountering a difficult text; he is equally interested in his own frustration with the student. He writes, “And yet, when I overcome my resistance and engage in the discussion, which I often find becomes contentious and emotional, I am reminded that when a text is dressed in the costume of poetry, that, in and of itself, is a provocation to consider these basic questions of language, meaning and art. …that is, poetry marked by its aversion to conformity, to received ideas, to the expected or mandated or regulated form.”

We might call an experience or person difficult when things don’t proceed as we expected. Lauren Berlant invokes the broad category of genre to frame our unconscious assumptions about the ordinary process of events. “Genres provide an affective expectation of the experience of watching something unfold, whether that thing is in life or in art. The waning of genre frames different kinds of potential openings within and beyond the impasse of adjustment that constant crisis creates.”3 The now familiar forms of abstract painting were born of the constant crises of the twentieth century: collapsing time and space, placing gestures and materials adjacent without cozy syntax. The genres of still life, portraiture and landscape after photography return to haunt painting as part objects, collage and representation of the marginalized and violated bodies of history.

Television situation comedy is one example of genre; the predictable set of the office, the front porch or the living room. The living room that mirrors the family sitting on their couch, watching the characters perform the same predictable life-events we watch television to escape; the comfort is in minor relational skirmishes resolved in a half hour. I have come to appreciate the comfort this form of narrative genre provides, but even purchasing a couch is a concession I delayed until my early forties. Rodney McMillian’s Couch from 2012 (one of a series, some of which are “easy chairs”) presents the difficulty of this fixture of the American living room; a cream-colored satin couch sawed in half and cemented back together. Who is represented on the TV couch, what forms of normativity constitute the genre? I am confronted as a viewer with my own difficulty; my grief and ongoing desires for and resistance to home and comfort. I think I was convinced that difficulty: hard surfaces, discomfort and intellectual rigor would keep me safe from these internal conflicts.

Richard Tuttle’s work is wonderful and playful and easy to look at, but difficult to understand. How does he keep making? What is being repeated? Is there a theme? A curious attachment to style underlies everything. In a video interview, he shares this story, “At birth my mother felt, for some reason, that she couldn’t take care of me. So there was an aunt who had just lost her baby, who was very eager to have me, and then there was a grandmother, you know, who was ready to come and help her daughter in times of need, so I was shifted around these three sort of maternal figures, all of whom gave me tremendous love, or uncritical love, so the dynamic was, you have all the love you need but then you don’t know who your mother is.”4

Difficulty is a vague word and vagueness is one form of difficulty; ambiguity too has its pleasures. The inability to make something out, to discern a contour, can be an opportunity. Herman Melville’s 1851 novel, Moby Dick, presents a difficult-to-see painting in chapter three, The Spouter Inn,

On one side hung a very large oil-painting so thoroughly besmoked, and every way defaced… it was only by diligent study and a series of systematic visits to it, and careful inquiry of the neighbours, that you could any way arrive at an understanding of its purpose.

A bit further on, the possibility that the painting resulted from an effort to “delineate chaos bewitched,” and a series of descriptors follow,

puzzled…confounded…portentous…something hovering…dim…floating in a nameless yeast…boggy, soggy, squitchy picture…enough to drive a nervous man distracted…a sort of indefinite…half-attained…involuntarily…deceptive idea… a faint resemblance.5

One of the ways I understand Lauren Berlant’s writing, which is difficult in style, tone, cadence, and content, is as a form of continuity describing the continuous crisis of the present. Her language carries me through the difficulties she invokes. She knows that feeling attached to life requires a narrative form, and so she invented a form that copes with the loss of meaningful narrative in our world. Certain genres have arisen to give shape to experience in the 21st century—horror, pornography, suspense, fantasy, science fiction, all have ways of creating attachment and moving things along by incorporating fear, anxiety, dread, self-disgust, suspicion, paranoia, desire, etc. But the attachments that straight genre produces are lacking in difficulty by design. The conventions of genre run as deep as its pleasures, but these conventions dictate our expectations about being in the world. They can devastate our social and political well-being.

Any convention can be made difficult. This is the work of artists. Taking something away, so that absence can be felt, is the subject of Andrea Fraser’s essay “Why Does Fred Sandback’s Work Make Me Cry?” She writes “Sandback’s work is an art of absences, an art that’s only just barely there to be seen.” I love this essay, which is a grieving and ambivalent ode to minimal art; art that makes space for the viewer to exist in the institution, only to sense the losses we seek art to compensate for. She writes, “Just as art cannot exist outside of the field of art, I cannot exist outside of the field of art, at least not as what I am, which is an artist.” Maybe a reader would not find this difficult yet, but she continues,

This is my greatest difficulty. I believe that art cannot exist outside of the field of art. However, at the same time that I maintain this view, I know that, somehow, I also believe that art cannot exist within the field of art. It must be art in this sense that is lost for me.6

On the phone a poet friend tells me of the irritation she experiences when asked to explain the meaning of her poems. “Why would I use worse words, and more of them?” she said, and I am paraphrasing. Paraphrasing means using worse words, or at least more of them, to achieve greater clarity.


  1. Charles Bernstein, Attack of the Difficult Poems, (University of Chicago Press, 2011) 3.
  2. Karla McLaren, The Language of Emotions (Sounds True, 2010) 257.
  3. Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism, (Duke University Press 2011) 6.
  4. Richard Tuttle Interview, Artists Are Like Clouds,
  5. Herman Melville, Moby Dick,(Harper and Brothers, 1851)
  6. "Why Does Fred Sandback's Work Make Me Cry" by Andrea Fraser (Grey Room 22, Winter 2005)


Molly Zuckerman-Hartung

Molly Zuckerman-Hartung is a painter and writer living in Norfolk CT.


The Brooklyn Rail

MARCH 2023

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