The Function of Knowledge and Contingent Difficulty in the Poetry of John Forbes

Aidan Coleman


The poet John Forbes (1950-1998) was famous for his erudition, but it is a feature of his work that has long been overlooked. Outlining how knowledge functions in Forbes’ poetics and compositional process, I argue for foregrounding this knowledge content in readings of his work, before modelling sustained readings of the erudition of two of Forbes’ best-known poems, ‘Stalin’s Holidays’ and ‘Ars Poetica’. These readings focus on the experience of contingent difficulty – that category of difficulty, according to George Steiner, that finds its source in a reader’s lack of knowledge – and the role that research, or ‘homework’ (26), plays in the reading process. While acknowledging that Steiner’s contingent difficulties are intertwined with – and sometimes created by – other categories of difficulty, this article argues for the productiveness of such ‘homework’ early in the interpretative process. Steiner likens contingent difficulties to ‘burrs on the fabric of the text’ (27). I extend this metaphor to propose that contingent difficulties, in their tactile, grip-like quality, enable a reader to engage with a difficult poem, and to proceed with exegesis, when the difficulties the poem otherwise presents seem insurmountable. 


John Forbes; poetry; difficulty; knowledge; George Steiner

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