It is not for nothing that even Billy Collins now laments being called “accessible” at every reading, interview, introduction, and award ceremony. Synonymous as it is with unsurprising, bland, nonthreatening—everything, in short, that a good poem thwarts in order to mean something never before meant in such a way by another human being. In a recent interview with Billy Collins on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation,” the host of the program, Neil Conan, asked poets to call in to join the discussion of how poetry might increase its audience. About halfway into the program, a caller, one Rick from Sarasota, is on the air, and he yells: “Hey!” boisterously and begins to read from his work. Rick from Sarasota reads for only about a minute, but 70 seconds of passionate doggerel on live radio in the middle of the afternoon feels interminable—and, upon the poem’s conclusion, Collins is quick to say, “Well, it’s a good thing John Milton didn’t call in.”
The host and Collins share a hearty laugh here at the caller’s expense—poor Neal Conan is live on the air and actually in stitches—and when Rick from Sarasota mistakes their chuckling for a glowing review of his environmental screed, he uses it as an opening for more, and begins, indeed, to read a second poem, saying, “I’ve got more...I’ve got a whole book here!” Collins is laughing still, but you can hear the anxiety in it now. And then Rick from Sarasota says, “Here’s one on the tsunami” and launches into it, with the same eagerness of his first piece.
Finally, Collins now apparently fearing for his life, has to raise his voice, interrupting Rick’s poem, and says, “Neal! Are you there?!” and they finally cut Rick from Sarasota off, citing time, of course, and “giving somebody else a chance” as though forced to explain what sharing means to an overzealous child hogging a playground swing. Curiously, the title of this episode of "Talk of the Nation" is “Collins values approachable poetry, not pretension.” Yet what is this poem that Rick from Sarasota has called in to recite, if not “approachable”? Further, what are Neal Conan’s and Billy Collins’s responses, if not pretentious? If pretense is “the presumption of importance” and making an “exaggerated outward show,” surely their laughter at this man’s poem and at Collins’s exaggerated joke about Milton present exactly the opposite of what they sought to discuss: in other words, their conversation has drifted from approachability directly into pretension.
The problem here is that it’s funny. And in listening to this bit over and over again, transcribing it for the purposes of this discussion, I about fell over with laughter. The poem the caller reads is terrible. The passion with which the caller delivers his poem on national radio only enhances its terribleness. In fact, sometimes we are pretentious in the face of plain old approachability. Why? Because—despite their program’s efforts to prove otherwise—approachability is often tedious, full of expected turns and unsurprising language. In this case it’s didactic, redundant, and poorly measured, to boot.
But aren’t they pitiless, then, for laughing at a novice poet calling up in earnest support of their very topic? Yes, they are—and so am I, for laughing with them. Actually, I’m okay with that—so long as I don’t have to pretend to enjoy bad poetry just because it’s accessible and that a fifth-grader can understand it. I love the idea of children’s poetry, but not all poetry needs to please these young hearts. Indeed, not all movies should be made for a PG audience and not all symphonies should be 3 minutes or less to suit the markets of the radio, if any remain. And anyhow, nobody more than Kenneth Koch has shown us that a poem by a 9-year-old is often far more fascinating than those written by adults, unconcerned as youngsters often are with what a poem should sound like.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with writing about asteroids or the dust bowl for a popular audience—in fact, I’m glad for it—but that should hardly be an imperative to all scientists and historians. Lest you think I am saying otherwise, allow me to assure you: I am a selfish, complicated person, and I want a poetry far more sophisticated, imaginative, and contradictory than I am. I don’t need to see myself reflected in a poem. If I wanted that, I would sit around reading my own poems to myself—which, occasionally, I do.
Jarrell put it like this: “Which patronizes and degrades the reader, the Divine Comedy with its four levels of meaning, or the Reader’s Digest with its one level so low that it seems not a level but an abyss into which the reader consents to sink? The writer’s real dishonesty is to give an easy paraphrase of the hard truth.” Actually, here is where I agree with Billy Collins, when he says, “once the reader gets into the poem, I’m hoping that less accessible things start happening as the reader is moved into worlds that are a little more challenging, a little more hypothetical, and a little more mysterious.” Even for Billy Collins—I’m sort of stunned to say, I’ll admit—accessibility itself is really just a ruse, a Trojan horse to get to the more complicated activities of the poem.
In fact, this call for “accessibility” in poetry is a ruse itself to prevent us from encountering language that might alter us. For John Yau, saying “that poetry is inaccessible is just a comment on your own laziness.” I think it’s true, but I reckon it’s worse than mere laziness. Nothing reeks of maintaining the status quo as much as this call for poets to be accessible. My favorite recent response about this is from an interview with Philip Levine, after he was named Poet Laureate last year. The interviewer, Andrew Goldman, asks:
I wonder if you agree with John Barr, the president of the Poetry Foundation, who, with the help of a $200 million endowment, has been trying to popularize poetry by encouraging poets to write more upbeat poems.
And Levine responds:
Hell, no. I can’t believe this guy Barr is a poet, because I don’t think a real poet would think in that way. When a poem comes to you, you’re not going to say, “Oh, no, this goddamned poem is just too mean-spirited.” You’re going to run with it.
Would we ask composers to be use fewer notes or for dancers to rely only on familiar movements? We may not enjoy or even understand what they do, but that’s hardly a call to relegate them to preapproved melodies or expression. If artists aren’t encouraged to expand the horizon of what’s possible for human imagination and experience, perhaps we are better off leaving that to Hollywood or in the care of our elected officials.
I find that the common assertion that poetry has no significant audience is merely the uncritical sentiment of its sad detractors, eager to persuade us that what they don’t care to understand doesn’t actually exist. Or that it’s too difficult. That it’s too pretentious. That it alienates, etc. Perhaps it is not the goal of a work of art to make its audience feel at home—to assuage, to reflect, or validate. When you next hear a broadcaster cite the “highly readable” qualities of some new book or read a review hearkening to poetry’s inaccessibility (you see, they are trying to gain your confidence by assuring you of your own lack of intelligence—and don’t worry, plenty of callers will phone in to agree)—when you hear this take heart that poetry is thriving, refusing to disclose itself in ways that belie its form. This is one of its strengths, not a weakness.
Though, to be sure: obscurity and difficulty are hardly ingredients for quality in poetry, let alone for effectiveness or the power to bewitch or delight or amuse. In other words, don’t misunderstand me to say that willfully obscure poetry is of the finest quality and poetry easily approached is necessarily bad. Hardly. In fact, nowhere more than the poems of Dickinson or Celan or Niedecker are the simplest words put to such disarming and strange effects.
What I mean is that, finally what we most want from poetry—to just mean one thing and to come out and tell us directly what that one thing is—well, poetry is unable to accommodate that wish. It befuddles, vexes, seduces, and never fully reveals itself—all while laying inert there on the page before you or vanishing into the air in which it was spoken. But now look—like those whingeing critics deriding MFA programs as the pernicious corruptors of creative writing as we know it—even I have fallen into that old trap of defending poetry myself. As Jarrell says,
Poetry does not need to be defended, any more than air or food needs to be defended; poetry…has been an indispensable part of any culture we know anything about. Human life without some form of poetry is not human life but animal existence.
But if poets are supposed to veer towards that which they do not know or understand, to make something out of that grappling, as I’ve argued, why should we expect anybody to follow along in such a strange, murky endeavor? We can’t expect that, nor should we. In fact, to expect some kind of dutiful, assiduous readership is also a kind of elitism. I’m not sure poetry deserves readers, actually—which I know is odd to say, I realize, after all the railing against the dogma of accessibility I’ve unleashed here. But actually: a reader’s intelligence, patience, and inquisitiveness really are gifts. And following Auden, when he says, “Every poet has his dream reader,” I’ve come to feel like any careful reader whosoever is a dream.
Perhaps what A.R. Ammons says is true:
Having once experienced the mystery, plenitude, contradiction, and composure of a work of art, we afterwards have a built-in resistance to the slogans and propaganda of over-simplification that have often contributed to the destruction of human life. Poetry is a verbal means to a non-verbal source.
And If you choose to follow that grappling in “mystery, plenitude, and contradiction” as a reader—well, it is a gift. And it is a poet’s luxury that you might wish to follow along and make meanings along any peculiar thread of words forming stanzas—those “verbal means to a non-verbal source.” And truly: a bright, curious reader is a gift.
The good news is that in poetry, they are inextricable. What you get from the poem is precisely what you give to it. And that’s lovely—at times fatiguing, too, no doubt. But—still—lovely.
Accepting the award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the National Book Awards, John Ashbery said of poetry: “It is fun, though it isn’t supposed to be. But somehow the difficulty is embedded in the pleasure.” Surely this can be the case with reading too, as when a poem truly disarms us.
One of the definitions of accessible is “open to the influence of—as in, a mind accessible to reason.” To be open to the influence of the unknowns of a poem, that is the kind of accessibility I hope to encourage here. Not for poetry to accommodate our expectations, but for us to accommodate the strangeness of what a poem might present its reader with.