Saturday, May 17, 2014

A few weeks ago my sweet friend Nick posted a few comments about Same Old Story on the book's Amazon page. In it, he made more or less the same remark that my father also made when he wrote me a letter about the book: that it was a relief to read poems that were "accessible."

Accessibility is a broad and ambiguous concept, one that might cover poets as different as Sappho and Shel Silverstein. Yet as bandied in contemporary criticism, the term can be slyly pejorative. The implication is that accessibility may add to a book's general attractiveness but may also equal naive or lazy. Accessibility, such pedants suggest, is a bone to toss to non-experts. The attitude is both insulting and stupid, tantamount to claiming that Rembrandt was inferior to Pollock simply because Rembrandt was a realist.

Both Nick and my dad are well-educated men, and both chose the word with care. For them, accessibility implies a fruitful engagement between written word and reader, a conversation rather than a battle, and I am honored by their praise. But of course accessibility means different things to different readers, and I daresay there are plenty of people out there who would tell you that (1) my poems are too hard to understand and (2) my poems are too easy to understand. Both of those reactions are true because, as readers, we are changeable. Today, for instance, I would call Dickinson's poems accessible, but I struggled with them when I was a teenager. As an older reader, I have patience with strangeness and discomfort whereas when I was young, all I sought was rapture: "give me Keats and Keats and Keats!"

So I'm interested in your take on the matter . . . not necessarily with my poems but with the idea of accessibility in general. Does it mean easy to you? Or something more complicated? And how has your private definition of accessibility changed over time?


Ruth said...

"Accessible" means I can have a dialogue with the poem(s) or perhaps with the poet(s). Just as with a face to face dialogue, my ability to focus, gather my thoughts and express them coherently is changeable. At this stage in my life I more want to have those dialogues and so I am more willing to give poems, "easy" or "hard", time.

Christopher Woodman said...

Good answer, Ruth -- because it has so much to do with how much you are willing to give and on how many levels, and to whom. With someone you love you will be willing to fight for the answer because you know that both you and he/she are always trying your best, and that based on long and bitter-sweet experience you know the fight is how you make love, and that afterwards all will be well, for a season at least, or at least maybe will get you through breakfast.

Nobody has ever gained anything in this world without a struggle, including getting born, of course, which really hurts, and even if you long for your father or mother to pass on to you the truth, and you fervently believe they will because they love you and are perfect, you usually find out they didn't know much of anything at all in the end and that you had to, yes, you had to teach them yourself.

Poetry is one of the few places in the world that you can be sure that it will be difficult but that everybody, or at least every honest poet-everybody, is trying his or her best to say what can't possibly be said.

The rest is just entertainment, and of course that's a big one too, and what would we all be without it? Not poets, certainly, but surviving is important too.


Maureen said...

I don't use the term in any negative sense. "Accessible" does not mean "simplistic". I would also argue that some of the most seemingly "simple" of poems are profoundly thought-provoking.

One of the meanings of accessible is "open to the influence of" (I note, however, that that meaning can take on the perjorative); taking that definition at its most positive, I like to think I'm open to the influence of any poem I read, the better to want to read and engage with it, understand it in its own context, discern how it's put together and comes to conclusion, and explore possible meanings.

Maureen said...

I noted the subject of your post on Twitter. Here's one definition making the rounds there:

" 'Accessible' means you don't need to be a member of the Academy to engage with the creative work."

The feeling of outsider-ism is alive and well. I'm certainly not "of the Academy" but I've never let that stop me from reading, analyzing, writing, or writing about poetry.

Dawn Potter said...

I was about to write "Rather interesting that none of the conversers here is a member of that Academy, yet all of us seem pretty open-minded and nonjudgmental about 'easy' versus 'difficult.'" And then I wondered: what's the definition of "Academy"? That may be as ambiguous as "accessible," really.

Dawn Potter said...

My friend Milton Moon has graciously allowed me to copy his emailed note here. Milton is a master potter from Australia, and I am very, very happy to hear a practitioner in another art form speak so cogently about what began here as a poetry focus.


'Accessibility' is good. I recall once being given advice that 'at times people must be gently led by the hand and the rest is then up to them.'

'Accessibility' (at least the way I think of it) is not being 'politely invited' as a stranger, but to be made feel 'comfortable and at ease.' It takes a lot of skill to be accessible without being superior and patronising.

I recall once, when studying philosophy, a tutor told me, on reading an assignment I had done, that it 'might sound like good common sense but it doesn't sound like philosophy.' I gave up formal studies.

Ang said...

This conversation makes me think of perception.
Experience and learning changes perception which makes different things accessible. Sometimes when looking at the metaphorical horizon shapes resolve into recognizable objects, ideas, feelings. Whoa! jump back! Poetry does not for me. I can read and reread and still find something new. Have I changed? Sometimes the feeling I get is difficult to handle so I avoid it, but then strength comes and I look again. When strong, or at least present, the whole world exists in my perception, and the critics, the establishment, fade away.

Christopher Woodman said...

Yes, I agree with that completely – but “perception” is always complicated by personal experience. What you know or believe, what you’ve experienced, how old you are, whether you’re male or female, what you’ve read or studied, or not studied (the latter’s perhaps even more influential, haunted as we are by such anxieties) — and what you do when you’re alone, that’s very important, whom you secretly love or hate or feel threatened by and never say, all these factors play into what poets may or may not be “accessible” to you. And of course these factors change too. How many of us don’t have a good friend that drives us up the wall, for example, and heckle unmercifully because it’s good for them, or another whom we let get away with murder, because he or she’s successful, or maybe not and we feel sorry.

That’s the biggest one of all, I think – our relationship with the poet we’re reading. “With someone you love you will be willing to fight for the answer…” I said just above, etc. – because almost everybody is going to fight very hard to make sense out of even a poem as cramped and unlikely as “Directive,” for example, or a chopped-up mess like “The Wasteland” -- because they’re by poets who are so important to us we’ll do anything to ‘get’ them. I mean, they’re our lives, they’re our neighborhood!

At this point I’m convinced both “Directive” and “The Wasteland” are “easy,” but I’m very willing to admit that that’s because I've been so profoundly influenced by them. Ditto almost anything by Emily Dickinson, even when I haven’t a clue about half of what she writes or says. Indeed, they she feels accessible even when I can’t get in the door.

Ditto the smallest fragment of Sappho, or some incomprehensible accident tacked up by Janet Malcolm somewhere, or by Anne Carson. Accessible even if you don’t understand a word of it, or indeed if there are any words – and of course even if whatever’s a very bad hair-day for everyone.


jen revved said...

A delicious topic. I view my work, in a time when it seems that ambiguity and parataxis seem to hold sway over the quality of language in poetry, as accessible to a fault. Somehow I feel that to appease the current literary lions I must master the obscure reference, the disparate image, and so on.

But then, I would lose my voice--at 65 I do believe and it has been said of my work that I have same--something I don't see as a good thing. I have a close friend who believes--it is his driving aesthetic, if you can call it that--that his work must speak to the every day Joe. In my view he sacrifices lyricism and the power of the figure thereto, in writing as prosaically as he does. Yet, he is published again and again! Personally I find reading you, Dawn, to ever be a challenge; you displace the ordinary, the expected, and make it new every time. In making it new, also in my view an excellent ambition for anyone's work, accessibility--on one end of the spectrum a facile comprehensibility and at the other end, writing perhaps not reachable by just any reader, readily understood by some but not all, we must trust that what we mean will shine through in the right way and in the right moments. Wonderful weighings-in...xj

Christopher Woodman said...

Anything is accessible if you're willing, the deepest cave, the North Face of the Eiger, Harlem or the Latin Quarter (yes, there was a time like that, and I’m old enough to remember). Here where I live now in Southeast Asia there are many places that are inaccessible simply because people don't want to be seen going to them in public, like graveyards, for example, or anywhere that's dark or quiet, places where your neighbors think proper people who know anything would never be seen. So many wonderful things are 'out of bounds' where I live because proper people are above them, and indeed you’re made to feel like a fool if you go where everybody knows even angels fear to tread.

William Blake said, "Nature & Art in this together Suit,/ What is Most Grand is always most Minute." Yet how many of us don't dare to go because it's too simple and we feel we'll look stupid?

Back in the 50s I can remember when 'educated' people didn’t listen to rock 'n roll or folk music, and don't even think about blue grass. And now we’ve got classically trained violinists playing fiddle in bars with local groups with preposterous names like String Field Theory.

Yet we’re still tied up in knots about how to say it right in poetry and what’s proper to be written.


Dawn Potter said...

Following is a comment from my friend Sheila:


I feel "accessible," which is such a positive word in most situations, has been appropriated by some of the powers-that-be in the poetry world and turned into an insult. I laughed at your description of this phenomenon -- "ignorant." While I sometimes enjoy and always appreciate good poetry that is challenging to penetrate, there is a lot crap out there that is just obscure for obscurity's sake. As if that makes it art. I enjoy literature that explores life, history, injustice, economic inequality, violence, oppression -- you do this so well, so beautifully and intelligently. I am 100% sincere when I say your success is good news for the poe biz! I wish more poets grappled with the world around them instead of ceding that territory to fiction writers.

Christopher Woodman said...

Of course that’s the point – there is a lot of crap out there that is obscure for obscurity's sake. But who are the crap writers, and who reads the crap they write, and why? Not you or me, for sure, indeed almost certainly not anyone who admires Dawn’s poetry and reads her blog. But there’s a market for it nevertheless, otherwise there wouldn’t be so much of it around. Indeed, there are obviously people out there who a.) find it accessible, b.) teach it, c.) get paid for teaching it, and d.) pass it on to those who will write and teach it in turn. Which is scary.


Dawn and I first met on five years ago. I was an outraged regular, she was a closet sympathizer. Utterly na├»ve about the ways of the poetry world, never having been in a workshop or writing program in my life, I’d been handily scammed by two very well-known poetry editors. The first one had been cashing my $25.00 checks annually for 10 years while editing one of the best poetry series in America -- until Foetry managed to prove that not only had ordinary packets like my own sometimes not even been opened year by year, but that many of the awards had gone to poets and teachers, spouses, baby-sitters and lovers associated with one particular writing program, a very good one but, as a result, far too influential...

The other editor had sent me a personal critique in response to my 6th submission to his annual 1st book competition in which he told me how much he truly loved my work and that for just $295.00 more he would like to send me an even more detailed critique -- and of course would get to know me even better. It was at precisely this point I stumbled on Foetry – the site had just begun to put up other ‘template’ letters with just the name of the poet and the book altered. My letter was a fraud, in other words, even after all those years -- and how many 100s of letters like mine there were nobody will ever know. More than that, the famous editor had promised me a 'bye' in his ‘open’ competition just coming up. Since I already had another, entirely different book submitted to it, I didn’t feel encouraged to know that there were others being given such an advantage over my work. I complained bitterly but the competition went on as normal, and the prize was given.

What a mess – and of course all that’s now been exposed, thanks to Foetry, and of course important changes have been adopted. On the other hand, in the following months I got banned first from Poets & Writers ‘Speakeasy,’ then Poets.Org, and finally Blog:Harriet -- just for mentioning the way I'd been treated.

Along the way the young Forum Director of one of these highly respected institutions was short-listed for a chapbook prize by the editor who had just scammed me, and I was foolish enough to mention something about him on the site she ran. Indeed, the tentacles of poetry taste, selection and approval reach very far as there’s so much respect, security, and kudos involved in the huge business of poetry in America. Indeed, the world has never seen anything like it.

Which is what, in a sense, we’re still feeling when we discuss this topic here.


I just want to mention that the “proper people” who know what’s “right” in my previous comment are not members of the Thai elite but scarcely literate villagers and peasants – indeed, propriety bugs every class and every corner of human society, and indeed the lower you get economically and socially the stricter become the rules on how to behave.

Secondly, don’t forget that Keats was ruthlessly belitted by his contemporaries for not being a good enough writer -- for "what’s proper to be written," as I put it. So too, you writer-trainers at all levels, even you, Dawn, Maureen, Ruth Jen and Sheila, have to be very careful of intolerance too. Indeed, you too have to be very careful that your own sense of entitlement doesn't limit your openness to the poetry of others.