Friday, March 23, 2012

Accessible Writing

Yesterday's post made me dig out a poem I wrote about accessibility and poetry. I wrote it after hearing some sneering comments about the poetry of Billy Collins, whose work I happen to love. And then I got a batch of poems returned to me with a comment on the rejection slip: "Well, your poems certainly are accessible, aren't they?"

This experience reminded me of an earlier experience writing my dissertation, where I was criticized for writing that was too clear and sparkling. One of my committee members suggested that I "muddy up my prose."

It's like I tell my Composition students--you have to know your audience. Some people like poems that are accessible, and others don't. Some people value clear and sparkling writing, and some people want to know that you can write in academic code, which some might call jargon.

This poem was first published in The Xavier Review, and was reprinted in The Worcester Review.


He says the poems are accessible,
as if it is a bad thing, as if loose
limbed poems spread open their legs
to anyone who gives them a glance.
Those poems don’t even demand drinks
and dinner first. Slutty poems. Ruint.

Perhaps he wants a sulky
poem, one that lets itself be petted, who pretends
to like him, but always holds a part
of itself back while he tortures
himself with evidence of his poem’s infidelities:
other people, plainer than him, who profess
to understand this poem when he cannot.

Perhaps he prefers poems that ignore
laws of accessibility, that barricade themselves behind bars
and up stairs and through perilous mazes.
After tunneling through to the heart
of the poem, he’s so disoriented
that he can’t hold his head upright.

Better yet, poems that speak a language
of their own creation; only a very
few in the world understand how the words
are strung together in this idiom.
Instead of seeing it for the dying language
that it is, he proclaims its linguistic
complexity and pretends to understand.


Jim Murdoch said...

Why is it that poets always fall into two camps? I’m working on a post about antipoetry at the moment. Misleading name but good idea. I started researching this because someone, a friend actually, said that my poetry belonged to the same antipoetry tradition as did Larkin’s and, although I know what she meant (and know she meant nothing bad), I wasn’t sure that I necessarily agreed but didn’t know enough to defend myself. It’s a term that has been used—and redefined—by a number of people but the general idea is much the same, poetry written in a plain, accessible style. The adjective that’s so often used is ‘flat’ but I’ve been unable to find a decent definition of what that’s supposed to be; ‘flat’ as opposed to ‘heightened’ I suppose.

I have always favoured straightforward poetry. It always puzzled me as a kid why poets always seemed to look for the hard was to say stuff. The teachers would explain the poems to us and we’d go, “So that’s what he meant! Why didn’t he just say that?” I’m not opposed to poems with depth—and I’d like to think that all of mine have depth—but most of us are content to sit on the banks of a lake and enjoy the superficial beauty; let those who want to strap on an aqualung and explore its hidden beauties.

As far as audiences go I only have one: me. I never consider writing up or down to anyone. I write in a style that feels appropriate to the material and if anyone gets something out of it later on, well that’s just dandy.

Hannah Stephenson said...

I'm grossed out by the comment you received, and its brattiness/snarkiness. Yuck.

I love your poem.

I hate the Billy Collins bitchiness factor. I respect him so much (even if his writing isn't on my own top 10 list) and value what he brings to writing.

As both you and Jim imply, accessible does not have to mean "lacking in depth."

I don't like thinking about accessibility as being the defining aspect of certain camps of poetry. It's kind of like calling "Indie Rock" a defined style of music.

You are right that certain journals value certain voices/styles. It really is a help in knowing where our own work might connect with others.


It's the art in poetry that readers don't train themselves to figure out. There's always the newspaper to read (sometimes, not), but they don't know what they are missing. It is the many splendoured thing; but does anyone miss what one does not know? Pity.

Kristin said...

Thank you all, for your nuanced thoughts and comments.