by Johannes Goransson on Apr.21, 2011
Billy Collins is often held up as a paradigm of “accessibility” (frequently published in venues with aspirations toward “general readership” – NPR, Best of American Poetry etc) or denounced as a simpleton. I have never really read his work but lately I’ve been interested in reading it as a way to think about this mythic “accessibility” and such. Here’s a poetics poem (turns out almost all of his poems are about reading/writing poetry):
Introduction to Poetry
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
Often in debates of “accessibility” the opposite of accessibility is “academic” or “difficult”, a term that’s mean to invoke the humorless image of the authoritarian professor/New Critic (or worse). But it’s interesting that a lot of these supposed “accessible” poets are of course professors, and it’s interesting to me that Collins in this ars poetica poem chooses to use the relationship between student and teacher to explore the relationship between writer and reader.
As in Kirby’s article (see my post yesterday), “they” (here the students, in Kirby’s piece it’s the high school teachers) don’t get poetry, so they start asking questions about it, an act which is equated with prison-interrogation. In Kirby’s terminology, they don’t “love” the poem because to “love” the poem is to just accept it – to “waterski/across the surface of the poem” carelessly. By asking questions they are committing a crime against Art.
The paradox is of course that it’s usually the teacher who is portrayed as beating the students… Here the students are powerful… Or are they the reader? Is this the model of a reader who cares too much, turns to violence against a body (the poem) which supposedly doesn’t know anything, did not commit the crime.
The way they’re supposed to read the poem is exemplified by a series of interesting metaphors. The second one in particular interests me: alluding to Plath’s “Arrival of the Bee Box,” Collins advocates “press[ing] an ear against its hive.” But unlike Plath, the speaker does not attempt to interpret the “din” (in Plath’s poem) or “furious latin” (Plath); he does not imagine slave arms clambering in there. In fact he doesn’t imagine anything at all, he just goes on. As in pretty much every single one of Collins’ poems, the speaker is fundamentally untroubled.
In another metaphor, he advocates dropping a mouse into a poem to see if it can get out. The speaker is the master of the poem, in control. He is not, as Plath is, overtaken by Art and convinced to let the swarmy hands out; he is not at all worried about the mouse attacking him. Nothing is at stake.
Of course, this poem about not interpreting poems depends on us being able to interpret it: it’s not a meaningless poem, it’s not about the “surface” – there is very little to waterski on. Rather it’s a poem whose metaphors are meant to be interpreted: reading poetry is like “loving” the oddness of the world carelessly. In order for something to be “accessible” apparently it should not be very interesting on the “surface” but invite an easy close reading (about itself). So accessibility is actually very much part of an academic notion of a meaning that we get at by interpreting the metaphors.
Rather than evading interpretation, “accessible” poetry seems to be dependent on interpretation (you just can’t admit that it is).
The other key ingredient seems to be this carefree attitude. These poems don’t demand anything, they don’t make you uncomfortable, there is no intensity, not trouble. Everything is honky-dory. A OK. Uncomplicated. The person is complete, the poem is complete. No damage done. What is usually cast as a matter of reading skills (things are accessible because we know how to read it) seems equally based on what we want art to do: which is to say, accessible poetry doesn’t want art to bother us too much: maybe a little jokey, maybe a little wistful, but that’s it.
Because I’m not interested in that mode of operating, this poem doesn’t really interest me – isn’t accessible to me – until the last stanza when the readers/students (or bees?) attack the poem, tie it up and ask for its meaning. Or more likely, ask for its crime. And its crime is Art, the crime of art, the murderous nature of art that Plath was so thoroughly acquainted with, what Collins and Kirby tries to cover with their wordless, plain, “accessible,” meaningless “love.” This is an interesting moment. Mostly because I think it’s not actually the readers who are attacking the poem; it’s the poem attacking the reader. It’s the Sublime as Abu Ghraib, Art as Violence.
This all reminds me of a discussion we had a while back in response to the Coldfront review of my book A New Quarantine Will Take My Place.
The Coldfront review went:
Two criticisms are that the use and reuse of images can lead to sometimes tiresome redundancies and repetitions, and that the whole book as a continuous poem can lead to a page-turner effect a la The DaVinci Code where the reader is coerced, rather than compelled, to keep reading. Importantly, Johannes Göransson keeps you reading.
To continue through Johannes’s book is to see this convulsive reflectivity repeated to the point of utter-, over-, and supersaturation, as violence is ‘mediated’, that is, reaches the speaker through media, including the media of his own and others’ bodies, as he discharges violence through the person of his own body (and directed against his own body) at objects, persons, places, infants, girlfriends, forms, his thigh and torso, as he thus becomes a medium for violence working in every direction. The provocative potential of this book is the idea that a book is itself a medium for violence and coercion, the Coldfront complaint. This is not a diagnosis I think Johannes would reject, given the totalness with which he commits himself to this total economy of violence, assuming no pose of ‘ethics’ or sham ‘critique’ which would suggest one could remove oneself from this supply-chain, from this fray, by any instrument but death. And even then. Death. The Conqueror Worm. The Emptor (Buyer). (Caveat emptorem, emptor!) The pre-emptor. The bitch to watch, to watch out for (see you in my dreams. Not if I see you first.) The new quarantine that will take your place.
What I’m getting at is the sense in which “accessible” is not so much about access or interpretation (that’s the misleading discussion, afterall my poems are as accessible and lowbrow as the Davinci Code), but an idea that you don’t want art to coerce. Collins wants a safe distance from the Art and its deathy swarms: he want to put an ear to the hive and then move on. He wants to remain complete; he want the poem to be contained. He does not want to become a tree for the bees.
But Art isn’t contained: it inevitably ties you up. Violence and art are intertwined more fully than we like to think (we prefer to think in terms of “aestheticizing violence”): Collins’ hose-beating lead his carefree poem into the troublesome “zone” of “atrocity kitsch“.