I was on twitter this evening, doing my usual check of what Steve Martin is saying about his banjo career and came across this link from Jericho Brown, who was blogging for poets.org.
I write this with the caveat that I don’t know the author of this blog, or anything about them.And after reading this post I didn’t read the rest of their blog, because this post includes such stuff as:
“Inaccessible poets are good at pleasing themselves and a few MFA types who have the time to spend hours reading a poem over and over to understand that the poet said green, but meant vomit. I, like most of the world, am too busy to spend that much time deciphering a poem. It is insulting to the reader to assume that they will invest that time before you have even gained their attention and their hearts and minds with your willingness to come to the reader.”
Perhaps it’s unfair of me to single out this post, but I feel like this is a common argument about what poets are doing wrong, so I’m going to try and utilize this post to get to some points (and if the author didn’t want other people to link and comment on their blog post, well, they shouldn’t have put it on the internet.) I’m going to go ahead and respond to this sentence by sentence:
1) “Inaccessible poets are good at pleasing themselves and a few MFA types who have the time to spend hours reading a poem over and over to understand that the poet said green, but meant vomit.”
First, I abhor it when people make generalizations. Tell me what poets you’re talking about. it’s impossible to actually respond to anything you’re saying about “them” without looking at the work. Second, “MFA types” is, again, vague and pejorative. What is an “MFA type”. I got an MFA, and there were all sorts of types in there. We ranged across the spectrum of class, race, and age (if you’re going about the traditional modes of “typing” people). There was intense disagreement in my program about poetics, just as I have encountered outside of school in the “real” world. I’m not a wholehearted believer in the MFA system (I think it’s good for some and poison for others) but this seems reductive in a way that is not beneficial to coherent argument. Third, I’m trying to picture the line where a poet said “green” and meant “vomit”. Was it lazy metaphor or metonymy that led to the confusion? Was it just a bad line? Was it a musical/visual/tactile choice rather than a literal choice? From what I’ve read, there aren’t a lot of “mainstream” contemporary poets who are just trying to make the reader work harder, but hey, I haven’t read everything. Perhaps the author is referring to some Flarf or Oulipo or language poem, but even those (when good) have a system and reasoning behind their choices (even if I, too, sometimes dislike it).
2) “I, like most of the world, am too busy to spend that much time deciphering a poem.” First off, not all poems are riddles to be deciphered. If you want a cypher with a right and wrong answer do the Sudoku. Second off, I read poetry because the act of reading it brings me joy in the process, not because I think there’s going to be some spiritual payoff at the end. I acknowledge that others might read poetry for very different reasons than me, but part of why I think the “general public” might be so turned off by poetry is this notion (often ingrained at a grade-school level) that poetry is something to be understood and thus learned from. Poetry is not information. You shouldn’t look to Warhol if you want to see what a can of Campbell’s soup looks like and you shouldn’t look to poetry if you want a realistic description of vomit.
3) “It is insulting to the reader to assume that they will invest that time before you have even gained their attention and their hearts and minds with your willingness to come to the reader.”
Even if Emily Dickinson had the Master and Walt Whitman had the multitude, I don’t think the poems of either give the impression of giving two shakes about coming to the reader. This strikes me as such an American ideal, that the mark of a successful poem is the one that the most people would text Ryan Seacrest to support. Besides for three (that’s all I can think of: Billy Collins, Maya Angelou, and Mary Oliver) currently “famous” poets I can’t really think of good examples of anybody who even attempts this, and I’m not sure any of those people would say that this sentence defines their poetic practice, since I’m not even sure how such a thing is possible. What does it look like to “gain their attention and their hearts and minds with your willingness to come to the reader”? Honestly, I’d love to see that, because I’m sitting here at a complete loss for how that’s a thing.
Okay, I think I’ve railed enough. I just keep seeing this argument, couched in vague admonishments for unnamed poets to employ seemingly impossible tactics, and it bugs the shit out of me. Music without any words can be just as satisfying (or, to use the blogger’s term, passionate) as music with lyrics. I find the abstract expressionism of Rothko or minimalism of Serra just as, if not more, satisfying (passionate) as realism. Not all poetry is meant to provide information to an end, and I’d posit that most great poetry’s first goal isn’t descriptive but emotive. That is not to say that there’s lots of bad poetry in the world and that most of the poems of even the best poets don’t fail to reach some plateau of greatness, but the sooner we switch the dialogue to discussing poems as poems and not as rhetoric the better off we’ll all be.