"I find poetry difficult," some people say. My response to this remark is: "Yes. And that is only one of the good things about it." Difficulty, after all, is magnetic, much desired: hence the video game, the crossword puzzle, golf. They are reliable, packaged forms of difficulty.
Finding a worthy difficulty appears to be a great human goal, perhaps more central than success. And oddly enough, that worthy difficulty does not necessarily give pleasure. Sometimes we complain about it, as Michelangelo Buonarotti does in this poem. It has often been translated into English but never so powerfully as in Gail Mazur's brilliant, unforgettable rendering:
Michelangelo: To Giovanni da Pistoia
When the Author Was Painting
the Vault of the Sistine Chapel
I've already grown a goiter from this torture,
hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy
(or anywhere else where the stagnant water's poison).
My stomach's squashed under my chin, my beard's
pointing at heaven, my brain's crushed in a casket,
my breast twists like a harpy's. My brush,
above me all the time, dribbles paint
so my face makes a fine floor for droppings!
My haunches are grinding into my guts,
my poor ass strains to work as a counterweight,
every gesture I make is blind and aimless.
My skin hangs loose below me, my spine's
all knotted from folding over itself.
I'm bent taut as a Syrian bow.
Because I'm stuck like this, my thoughts
are crazy, perfidious tripe:
anyone shoots badly through a crooked blowpipe.
My painting is dead.
Defend it for me, Giovanni, protect my honor.
I am not in the right place -- I am not a painter.
That the most celebrated of painters could write this about his masterwork should comfort (and amuse) anyone who has tried to make a work of art, or master a profession, or start a business.
The poem in English that many readers associate with difficulty is by William Butler Yeats:
The Fascination of What's Difficult
The fascination of what's difficult
Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent
Spontaneous joy and natural content
Out of my heart. There's something ails our colt
That must, as if it had not holy blood
Nor on Olympus leaped from cloud to cloud,
Shiver under the lash, strain, sweat and jolt
As though it dragged road-metal. My curse on plays
That have to be set up in fifty ways,
On the day's war with every knave and dolt,
Theatre business, management of men.
I swear before the door comes round again
I'll find the stable and pull out the bolt.
This poem surprises me a little every time I read it, because it says so little, explicitly, about the difficulty that really fascinates Yeats, as it fascinated Michelangelo: the supreme difficulty of art. Instead, Yeats is more specific about the cursed business of plays, knaves, dolts, management. All those other, minor difficulties point toward the ultimate, major difficulty: creating something that hadn't existed before. The winged horse of poetry, which he dreams of setting free, seems almost sacred -- too important to be named.
(Gail Mazur's poem "Michelangelo: To Giovanni da Pistoia, When the Author Was Painting the Vault of the Sistine Chapel" is from her book "They Can't Take That Away from Me." Univ. of Chicago. Copyright © 2001 by the University of Chicago. W. B. Yeats's poem "The Fascination of What's Difficult" can be found in "The Poems of W. B. Yeats: A New Edition." Simon & Schuster. Copyright © 1933, by Macmillan Publishing Company, renewed 1961 by Bertha Georgie Yeats.)