Saturday, April 09, 2005

Accessibility -- the spectrum rages on

Why do people love dichotomies? You'd think we're all programmed like software, yes/no, black/white switches clicking in our brains, cataloguing every impression and experience good/bad, hell/heaven ... Wait a minute -- we are!

So any discussion of accessibility and difficulty in poetry, in any kind of writing, must invariably be preceded by the word "versus," as though it weren't a continuum, a spectrum of colors. Most painters I know appreciate a big palette and a broad spectrum from which to choose when working. Most academics love the word "versus" or even better "in contradistinction to" (how inaccessible is that?).

I could rest my case right there by implying that all creative activity considers the spectrum view of life, while all analytical activity views the versus. (And those of us with alliterative disorder can't resist speaking merely for the pleasure of its sound.) I could stop here, and let you come to your own conclusion, but what's the fun in that? Let's jump into what some are discussing on this topic, hopefully without indulging much in the Poet-Laureate-bashing urge that seems to afflict many poets at this season. Though I defy any of you to find a discussion of accessibility that doesn't have his name in it, as a year or so ago, any such discussion inevitably mentioned Billy Collins. (And what's so accessible about Zen humor?)

Here's Emily Lloyd with a fascinating argument, not for greater accessibility in poetry, but more visibility. Michael Whalen has a beautiful essay on the topic, addressing mostly accessibility of subject, on Slant, Issue 6. He makes a good case for the subtle dimensions in the spectrum of accessibility that are unique to poetry, as apart from other kinds of writing. He points out poetry's layers of meaning in his comment that what is foregrounded and what is obscured has a meaning of its own. We read poetry not only for what it says and means, but for how it does so.

I venture my own modest generalization here. We read poetry because it is more difficult, and layered, than other forms of writing. We prize its obscurities, as long as we can barely keep up with them. We value the how as a continuum of the what.


  1. The Whalen, I agree, was cogent.

    My own strategy is to define Poetry broadly. Poetry is Art created out of the medium of Language. Thus all Language Art is Poetry. Naturally this is so broad as to be close to meaningless. But so what, so is God.

    Simplest, I think, is: Poetry is Not One Thing.


  2. After two weeks of posting poems by Kentucky poets, I feel as though I'm on accessibility overload. But maybe it's pastoral overload.

    Here in Kentucky, poetry is so accessible that our new state poet laureate, to be inaugurated tomorrow, is not a poet but a novelist.

    Both articles very thought-provoking. Thanks for the links.


  3. True, Glenn: poetry is not one thing. I must defend categories in art that employs language, however. I do believe that literary fiction is a high art, but it's not poetry. The infinity of God notwithstanding, categories here on earth are useful. I like the blurring of boundaries, however. Flash fiction and prose poetry, for example. But how do any of these issues relate to accessibility? I don't follow.


  4. Sherry, as a poet who also writes fiction, I find the naming of a novelist as state poet intriguing ... Maybe in Kentucky they're very avant-garde, as Glenn recommends, and are into blurring distinctions. Despite what I said above, I rather like his idea of all language art as poetry.

    But then I'm fond of contradicting myself.