Last night I googled the word poetry. Of the 260 Million entries which contain that word, the first three links are to the following sites: the first is to the Academy of American Poets (which boasts entire subcategories of poetry devoted to Teenagers, Sharks, and Drinking, among dozens of others); the second link directs you to the Poetry Foundation in Chicago (which, to date, has 10,426 poems online, searchable by theme, title, and author); and the third is to something called poetry.com, which boasts “14,000,000 poems and growing” under its heading. Fourteen Million. Do we really believe that there is some drought of poems that we might call “accessible”? In fact, this call to poets to be accessible—which is most commonly made in its opposite form, to dismiss a poet out of hand because of their so-called inaccessibility—is levied like there is some basic shortage of poetry written in the English language, and that the obscure as well as established poets out there jauntily writing their strange verses had better shape up so that “common readers” can actually begin to understand some of this especially scarce stuff.
Randall Jarrell, in his 1953 lecture “The Obscurity of the Poet,” put it like this:
people who have inherited the custom of not reading poets justify it by referring to the obscurity of the poems they have never read—since most people decide that poets are obscure very much as legislators decide that books are pornographic: by glancing at a few fragments someone has strung together to disgust them.
It seems to me that there are very few things quite as accessible—in the material sense— as poetry. As far as I know, there is no library bereft of at least a few beat-up anthologies replete with poems, often times with helpful introductions, biographical sketches, and even discussion questions accompanying the work. If you mean literal access, as in entry, admittance, and permission to use, well, there are few things as accessible as poetry.
Funnily enough, never has the overdeveloped world had more access to learning how to read, understand, and appreciate what a poem can do—as every year more scholars and critics and poets themselves publish works devoted to courting intimidated or perplexed would-be readers of poetry. Recent titles devoted to reading and understanding and enjoying poetry—whether by David Orr, Stephen Burt, Harold Bloom, or Charles Bernstein—come to mind here. Yet, suddenly the poet themself is an elitist if the poem’s language resists immediate familiarity. Poesis means to make not to make familiar. And this charge of elitism is possibly the saddest failure of imagination; and I hear it often from my students—students who’ve voluntarily registered for a poetry course. If elitism is “the practice of or belief in the rule by an elite, select, or favored group” I hope I don’t need much time here to convince you that poets are hardly part of any elite class. So, what is it that we fear?
Susan Howe responds this way:
Why should things please a large audience? And isn’t claiming that the work is too intellectually demanding also saying a majority of people are stupid? Different poets will always have different audiences. Some poets appeal to younger people, some to thousands, one or two to millions, some to older people, etc. If you have four readers who you truly touch and maybe even influence, well then that’s fine. Poetry is a calling. You are called to write and you follow.
When we ask what a movie or novel is about, this is usually to collect a bit of information on it. When we ask what a poem is about, this tends, instead, to be shorthand for, ok, ok, but tell me what it means; in other words, just reduce its helter-skelter language to something I can get—bottom line it for me, pal, I haven’t got all day here. Suddenly, the clock is ticking.
In effect, asking what a poem is about is like asking what music is about. And our inability to answer that question succinctly is hardly a testament to the meaningless of poetry—or music for that matter. When we mistake a poem for a newspaper article or even an anecdote, then the expectations for a poem’s language changes—and drastically. As Eliot said, poetry “is a concentration, and a new thing resulting from the concentration, of a very great number of experiences which to the practical and active person would not seem to be experiences at all.”
Indeed, at its best, a poem might be comprised of breath, desire, intelligence, and memory, our influences and conventions, rhythm and imagination, sound, narrative, history, and spontaneous play, as well as reference, emotion, the unconscious, and the music of language itself. As Robert Creeley put it simply, it is “a complex.”
Poetry resists just this kind of disclosure. To me, that is part of a poem’s unique power: our inability to reduce it. In fact, poetry is already a reduction, or, as one of my undergraduate students said recently, “a compaction.”
We don’t need to unpack a poem for its pleasures to be visited on us—seldom do we get a chance to do so at a poetry reading, shuttling along with the poet’s voice from poem to poem, one after another. This doesn’t compromise our pleasure if the poems are any good. Indeed, it can heighten it to hear the poet’s own cadences, timbre, accents, breath, asides, and silences even. But talking about it later won’t ruin the poem or make snobs out of us. When did discussing something unknown or new threaten to make us elitists?
Or perhaps it is liking—or even loving—something we don’t fully understand that makes us sound pretentious? In that case, I am guilty. Much of what I love in poetry, admittedly, I do not fully understand. But then again I don’t fully understand the paintings of Basquiat, or my dog either, for that matter—but that doesn’t prevent me from loving them, however irrationally. As Donald Hall puts it: “There are a thousand ways to love a poem. The best poets make up new ways, and the new ways mostly take getting used to.”
Yet, what is it that we lose in a defensive response against poetry? Perhaps, ironically enough, it prevents us from further access—as entry or passage—to our imaginations, to our ability to think in ways beyond our logical ken, to feel through language, perhaps especially to remain in a poem’s “uncertainties and doubts without any irritable reaching after fact or reason,” as Keats famously wrote to his brother. Saying, “I don’t get it” or, worse, blaming it on the overly obscure poets writing to “show off” as Billy Collins claimed on “Talk of the Nation,” is just a way of rutting ourselves in the little trench we’ve dug to stay safe in the familiar, in the world we like to think we recognize and know. Poems destabilize that, seemingly effortlessly, so it’s no wonder poets, with their peculiar locution and allusions, appear blameworthy themselves—or, worse, the institutions that support them.
When did we learn to go around citing the meaninglessness of that which we don’t yet understand? As a protective measure, I think I follow this: as my student Hannah says, “We don’t like to feel stupid and poetry, it seems, can do that.” It’s a defense, right? It shields us from the object of our dismissal—the poem in this case—but more importantly it prevents us from any obligation of having to participate in what the poem might mean. Abdication of our own ability to respond can be really satisfying. As we can fold our arms indignantly, look to either side, and say, ‘Well, this nonsense isn’t my problem!’ And this dismissal can be funny, too, as the recent Onion headline parodying poetry’s irrelevance to contemporary matters reads: “Distressed Nation Turns to Poet Laureate for Solace,” saying later that “Their masterfully crafted verses and subtle explorations of interiority dispel the nation’s fears in a way that nothing else can.”
And according to Jarrell,
The general public has set up a criterion of its own, one by which every form of contemporary art is condemned. This criterion is, in the case of music, melody; in the case of painting, representation; in the case of poetry, clarity…instead of having to perceive, to enter, and to interpret those new worlds which new works of art are, the public can notice at a glance whether or not these pay lip-service to its own ‘principles,’ and can then praise or blame them accordingly.
Today, perhaps even jazz’s unique rhythms and improvisatory modes are part of the culturally-accepted, Ken Burns-approved art forms, even if late Coltrane and Bitches Brew are still forbidden from the radio waves. Perhaps we have even grown accustomed to this estranging quality of modern visual art. We can look admiringly at a painting by Mark Rothko without straining to will it into a figure or rise in anger at its apparent disavowal of portraiture. We don’t demand to know what it’s about. It might be about color. And we can be pleased to see color manipulated compellingly. At least we can accept it as a fact of artistry, as artifice. Its former estranging capacity now part of the familiar fold of what hangs on the walls of notable museums.
Why, then, should a poem—simple as 30 or 40 words, carefully ordered—generate so much anger and frustration—derision even? Because a poem may be in search of uncertainty and discord, full as it is of both curiosity and the unknown. A poem is at once an act of making (poeisis) and an encounter as Paul Celan reminds us. In an early essay, Celan writes:
Now I am a person who likes simple words. It is true, I had realized long before this journey that there was much evil and injustice in the world I had now left, but I had believed I could shake the foundations if I called things by their proper names.
In fact, the moment the poem has ended, it asks us for more, it lingers or bedevils, or simply overwhelms us with its possibilities. It is comprised of language, after all, and it has the capacity to differ and defer, endlessly, ineluctably—sometimes even pleasurably.
But why should this debate about poetry continue? Arguments about its death, its unfitness for modern life, its inability to accommodate human experience, its unapproachability and obscurity, and its myriad difficulties date back to well before even 1928, when Edmund Wilson asked “Is verse a dying technique?” By 1960, in his famous Meridian Speech, Paul Celan said, “Ladies and gentleman, it is very common today to complain of the ‘obscurity’ of poetry.” By the early 90s, it’s Dana Gioia’s undying “Can Poetry Matter?” essay—articulating many similar concerns over poetry’s dwindling markets, if not its inaccessibility. Last month, in the Washington Post, Alexandra Petri asked, “Is poetry dead?” (And I can’t help but think of rapper El-P, on Bazooka Tooth, saying: “The critics claiming every year hip hop’s over. Fuck you, hip hop just started; it’s funny how the most nostalgic cats are the ones who were never part of it.”) The assumption is that poets themselves are holding poetry back from gaining wider audiences.
So, why is this? Is it because poetry gets more and more obscure? Less and less readable? No, not at all. Jarrell puts it like this: “In England today few poets are as popular as Dylan Thomas—his magical poems have corrupted a whole generation of English poets; yet he is surely one of the most obscure poets who ever lived.” Jarrell’s point—and he cites many early wonderfully perplexed responses to Shakespeare—is that even if poetry is obscure, that’s hardly a reason to not read it. Besides, Jay-Z’s irregular accentual rhythms and Lil Wayne’s arcane and prolix references and puns have hardly prevented them from appealing to millions—literally.
In fact, I think this debate about poetry (beyond its place in popular music) resurfaces zombie-like, again and again, because poetry is a language art like no other. And it is precisely because of that lure of direct communication—that we like to assume is possible with spoken and written language—that poetry continues to trouble, as it swerves out of the realm of the expected, attendant as it is to setting the conventions of communication in place only to lay the promise of direct communication itself aside. Wittgenstein said this more elegantly in his notebooks when he wrote, “Do not forget that a poem, although it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information.” But that slipperiness of a poem, elusiveness even, is not a wall; that’s an invitation to participate in a field of meaning any poem makes available on first hearing or reading.