Fear and Love in Criticism (pt 3): More on "accessibility"

by on Apr.25, 2011

Sandra Simonds wrote me the following on Facebook in response to this discussion:

“This is interesting. First, I should say that David directed my dissertation and I do consider him a friend.I don’t think he’s anti-intellectual, but I do think that he’s approaching poetry from a different tradition. He has claimed that poetry should be able to be understood by a 10 year old (meaning, I assume, that of a poem isn’t understood by someone so young, it’s failing on some level). As you can imagine, I strongly disagree with this idea. That said, I think that he is an advocate of a poem being transparent–like what you see is what you get. At the same time, however, he seems to want for a poem to retain a certain space that is sort of off limits to critical interpretation. I’m thinking that what’s going on here is a sort of Romantic view of poetry (I’m thinking of Wordsworth here…”we murder to dissect” etc). I think that most people would agree that there is some part of a good poem that *resists* interpretation (at least this might be the experimental poet’s interpretation). On a personal note, David’s a lovely person who is fully committed to mentoring younger poets, even those poets (like me) who are writing very different kinds of poems.”

Just some thoughts about this comment:
I would say Sandra points out the root of some of my issues with this accessibility rhetoric. To begin with “accessibility” suggests there are all these people who want to read poetry but they can’t figure out how, they are being kept out. The style of the poetry merely gets in the way; that we need to be “transparent” so that these people will get it.

But this is not how I view criticism at all. I don’t discuss poetry to get it, to capture some kind of definite meaning. Of course it is precisely the model of the “decoding” that both Kirby in his review and Collins in his poem attack! But the “accessibility” trope suggests that they do want it -that reading is about getting it. In fact, doesn’t “transparent” suggest the same: that we get the meaning without having to read the surface; but it’s still a meaning behind the language.

The solution becomes to write a poem that can very easily be decoded and then decry people who actually decode it; to reject seemingly all discussions about poetry as elitist or academic.

To me talking/writing about poetry is not about getting it, the one kernel of meaning; it’s about expanding my ideas of it, of opening the poem up, bringing in new connections. The poem doesn’t need to “resist” full interpretation because there is not complete interpretation – interpretations expand my idea of the poem. Joyelle placing Plath in her necropastoral space is very insightful, but it doesn’t close down my reading of Plath, it makes her poetry even more interesting.

Also, when I started writing I was inspired by a lot of weird shit- surrealism, drug culture, beats, the riddles of Bob Dylan’s mid-60s albums, Rimbaud, the occult, Genet, movies I saw on TV in the middle of the night (Andy Warhol’s Dracula and Frankenstein for example), gothic pop music and outfits etc. Hardly “accessible” writing. I would read reviews of poetry in the papers and it was nothing like what I liked. When I took creative writing in high school our teacher kept trying to correct my writing so that it was less obscene, less weird, more “accessible.” She even called my parents and said that I was maladjusted and warned them that she would get me kicked out of school unless I improved my writing. It’s a wonder I didn’t stop writing! So in my case, accessibility was actually used as a way of keeping me “out” of poetry. This obviously isn’t true of everyone or even a majority of the people, but it only goes to show how complex an issue like “accessibility” is. Accessible to who? should always be asked.

4 comments for this entry:
  1. Dan Hoy

    Just want to say that I appreciate the ongoing effort you put into critiquing ‘the critique’, i.e. to both clarify and open up the question of “What is it we’re really talking about here?” You may not see this as your role but you play it well.

  2. Johannes

    Thanks Dan. Yes, that’s what I’m trying to do here. Just looking at the rhetoric.


  3. don mee

    Right now I am reading Gathering Evidence by Thomas Bernhard, a remarkable writer, thinker, I think. This passage made me think of you:

    People refuse to be troubled by the trouble-maker. All my life I have been a trouble-maker, and I shall go on being the trouble-maker my relatives always said I was. As far back as I can remember, my mother used to call me a trouble-maker, and so did my guardian and my brother and sister. I still am a trouble-maker, with every breath I draw and in every line I write. Throughout my life my very existence has always made trouble. I have always troubled and irritated people. Everything I write, everything I do, is a source of trouble and irritation. My whole life, my whole existence, has consisted of troubling and irritating others, by drawing attention to facts that trouble and irritate them.

  4. Matt

    Why should anyone even begin to take seriously someone who argues that all poetry should be able to be understood by a ten year old?