Summer before last, amid all the recession and jobs talk on Capitol Hill, Bill Keller, the executive editor of The New York Times, wrote an article for the Sunday Magazine musing that if Congress read some poetry, “it might make them a little more human.” Not that it would improve them morally, but that it might help them to “think outside the box.” Earlier in the article he confesses, “I prefer craft to spontaneity, accessible to esoteric, and poems that engage both head and heart, but that’s just me.” This is the paradox of poetry for the intelligentsia today: to be implemented as an anodyne to business as usual in the market place, but please don’t be “esoteric” in your verse. In other words, poetry should be fresh and irreverent—quirky even—but never out of reach, never just “spontaneous.”
What folks like Keller seem to want from poetry is a poem deprived of its force, a poem captured like a leopard listlessly stalking behind bars at the zoo—if not declawed, then sufficiently caged off. Indeed, a poem without poetry. Yet, what Keller says, I think, is actually indicative of poetry’s power, its vivacity, its otherness. When we want poetry to behave, it will not. When we want poetry to body forth and somehow improve the hearts and minds of our elected officials on contact, it cannot.
We are told, again and again, that for poetry to be digestible in a broadly appealing way, apparently it must be poetry paired up with something else. For Natasha Tretheway to be invited to Fresh Air, there must be a pitch; poetry beside a familiar topic. “Poetry plus” is what Marjorie Perloff calls this.
For Tretheway, that means poetry plus her biracialness. Which allows Terry Gross to ask, “What does [Obama’s election] mean to you?” For former poets laureate it is poetry plus the homelessness of a brother (Robert Hass) or poetry plus the death of a parent (W.S. Merwin); and really why should this surprise us? It just exploits the fact that poetry can speak to literally anything. And so long as the host sticks to the topics we are safe with (politics, death, family) then we will avoid having to talk about what animates poetry (the language itself, of course). So much so, perhaps, that for Billy Collins, it is poetry plus accessibility itself. Poets on “Fresh Air” are treated like 21st-Century mystics, with specialized access to their own experience. There is so little mention of language in these interviews that you might forget that poets work with words at all. Yet even Collins, the author of a book called The Trouble with Poetry, says that this talk of accessibility is now like “nails on a blackboard” to him.
Isn’t this the double bind of poetry? In order for it to command a popular audience (and Collins’s books have indeed sold millions of copies), it must deploy what we call accessibility in terms of ease of access, or lack of any apparent difficulty. Which is to say: familiarity, recognizability, even avuncular friendliness in tone, form, and diction—the very qualities for which his poems are lauded, sometimes even to Collins’s own consternation. But more on Collins’s curious response to being the poet of accessibility later.
The question comes back to our assumptions about clarity, which is no more a metaphor for reading than the term accessibility, as Rae Armantrout asks, “What is the meaning of clarity? Is something clear when you understand it or when it looms up, startling you?” Myung Mi Kim puts it this way:
I think the question here is: can the broad masses actually have a lot more to say about what’s scrutable and readable and intelligible than what someone else—external to the broad masses—has determined? That’s really the question, to some degree….In other words, who has the privilege to say, ‘This is transparent’…?
Of course, each poet must ask and re-ask: what should a poem be? What should it do? How should it sound? What should it look like and how should it behave? Yet, the moment we concede the terms of what form a poem should take to a reader new to poetry—in service of readability and access—the discussion shifts to accommodating or pleasing somebody who doesn’t now read or necessarily care for it anyway. Am I naive to be confident that poetry doesn’t need to be diminished to attract new readers, having endured as it has for at least a few thousand years? And anyhow, to quote O’Hara, “Nobody should experience anything they don’t need to, if they don’t need poetry bully for them, I like the movies too.”
When we reduce the discussion to the terms of “access” and “accessibility,” what is implied through these words is that entry has been barred, that we are prevented from experiencing the meanings of these difficult poems, despite the fact that many of us are literate adults. When the word “access” is used in this way, rhetorically it stages the poem as the esoteric structure of a willful obscurantist who would prefer that you don’t even bother until you have read your way through the library. But this is not the way of poets I know. Most of us crave some small readership, without having to dilute or summarize the verses we’ve worked solitarily to invent.