My mother, who reads the NYTimes every Sunday, often sends me articles she thinks I’ll be interested in (and usually she’s right!). This morning I logged into my email to find a link to an article in the NY / Region section on the current poet laureate of Brooklyn Tina Chang. The NYTimes celebrates her for her accessibility, her multiculturalism and her ambition to make poetry part of the everyday, to “demystify the role of the poet.” A goal worthy of celebration.
It made me think, though, of the Poetry Magazine Podcast I was listening to the other day – I think it was the January issue (I’m always a few months behind current). They spoke with Canadian poet Carmine Starnino about ‘lazy bastardism’ and the myth of the ordinary reader. In the discussion, Starnino questions the practice of writing poetry in order to reach a certain hypothetical reader, and in doing so simplifying or censoring yourself.
I don’t think these positions are in opposition, but it is something I struggle with. The poetry I love to read and translate ranges from the very difficult, to the experimental, to the traditionally lyrical, to the politically populist. And if I try to define what it is that brings all of these together for me I end up devolving into some rambling, haphazard and pretentious exploration of the ineffable qualities of language and sound.
I firmly believe that poetry must not isolate itself from the world. But must it be ‘accessible’ in the lazy sense to do that (like, for example, Billy Collins whose great ‘accessibility’ has gained him significant remuneration, but who is literary at the level of Shel Silverstein)? Or is there another kind of accessibility, one that demands attention, care and engagement from the reader without resorting to esoteric jargon and self-importantly academic allusion. Something that is accessible but not easy, perhaps?
Many years ago I heard then poet-laureate of the United States Robert Pinsky give a talk at my alma mater UMass Boston. He firmly defended allusion (and I hope I’m not too badly misremembering his argument) but insisted that it need not limit a reader’s access to the poem. Allusion, I recall him saying, is important in adding further dimensions to the poem. But, I think he pointed out, when it functions to cut off a potential readership because it makes the poem unintelligible without understanding the references, it’s no better than an inside joke to an outsider. Useless, and worse, it makes the poem containing it useless too.
Without getting too caught up in an argument on allusion (which seems to me to have changed significantly in the past century because of an overabundance of information coupled with the destabilization of the literary canon, which precludes any kind of assumption of commonality in influences and reading) my point is that poetry need not be dumbed down in order to be accessible. And I think Tina Chang is a nice example of this (kudos, Brooklyn!). But also that if we want people to continue to care about and read poetry, the basic tools for reading poetry need to be included in literature classes.
Too many students (my own very intelligent college students included) don’t even know how to begin to approach a poem. I have my own chosen methods of approach: read it first out loud. Read it a second time on the page. Read it a third time out loud. Poetry, unlike a lot of prose, needs to be read over and over, each word taken into consideration, to be understood. Look up words you don’t know, look up references you don’t know. Everything in a poem matters, nothing can be glossed. It should take as long to read a page of poetry as it does to read five (or even ten) pages of prose.
Even beyond basic reading practices, what do you look for? To start: repetition, alliteration, anaphora – or to say it more simply, repeating words, repeating sounds, repeating beginnings of lines. Rhyme, always. But when those things aren’t obvious, there are other things to try. It’s intuitive once someone has pointed it out to you, once someone has really read a poem with you, or even just in front of you. And without some of these basic reading tools, no matter how simple a poem is, eventually no one will know how to read it but other poets. Accessibility is some part the job of the poet to be engaged with the world, to write about things that matter and to avoid masturbatory elitism. But it’s also the job of the reader (and those who teach them) to learn how to seriously engage with a poem. Then even poems that seem difficult can be opened up.