More on Billy Collins and Accessibility

by on Apr.28, 2011

from a PBS interview:

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I want to talk about this issue of accessibility. I notice that the word “accessible” is used a lot in reviews and discussions of your poetry meaning, I guess, easy to understand. It is a word you like? Do you try to be accessible?

BILLY COLLINS: Well, I’ve gotten tired of it actually. It’s a little overused, not just in application to my work, but a lot of other poets I think. I think accessible just means that the reader can walk into the poem without difficulty. The poem is not, as someone put it, deflective of entry. But the real question is what happens to the reader once he or she gets inside the poem? That’s the real question for me, is getting the reader into the poem and then taking the reader somewhere because I think of poetry as a kind of form of travel writing.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You have a poem that’s kind of about this. Read it. We’ll keep on with this discussion.

BILLY COLLINS: Well, the poem is called “Introduction to Poetry.” It’s about the teaching of poetry to students. “Introduction to Poetry.” “I asked 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 water ski 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.”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: (Laughs) There’s a lot here. Part of it is just you’re asking people to approach this with a lighter heart than they sometimes think they should, right?

BILLY COLLINS: I think so. Often people, when they’re confronted with a poem, it’s like someone who keep saying “what is the meaning of this? What is the meaning of this?” And that dulls us to the other pleasures poetry offers.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Is it… Would you say it’s something of a cause with you or has been to avoid pomposity? To… It’s subtle what you’re doing. It isn’t that it’s easy. It looks very hard to me, but it is… You use the word “hospitable.” You’re very hospitable to your reader.

BILLY COLLINS: Well, I think I’m making up for previous sins, because when I was in graduate school, I was taught that difficulty was part of the value of poetry, and I committed the sin of difficulty over and over again in my earlier writing. It took quite a while for me just to try to speak more clearly. I’m very aware of the presence of a reader, and that probably is a reaction against a lot of poems that I do read which seem oblivious to my presence as a reader.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you think that American poetry has gotten too difficult?

BILLY COLLINS: Well, I think it’s getting… I think it reached a high-water mark of difficulty probably in the ’50s and ’60s, but I think there’s a lot of very good, plainspoken poetry today. There are interesting forms of difficulty, and there are unprofitable forms of difficulty. I mean, I enjoy some difficult poetry, but some of it is impenetrable and I actually wouldn’t want to penetrate it if I could perhaps.

6 comments for this entry:
  1. Jake Levine

    committing the sin of difficulty, penetrating, not penetrating, woh that’s pretty patriarchal. Isn’t it the other way around? I thought so. I thought poetry penetrates you. I can’t believe I got it wrong this whole time. I thought it was emancipatory or something, but now I’m all confused.

  2. James Pate

    One of the things I like about certain types of “difficult” experimental writing as opposed to a great deal of “accessible” writing is that I actually find experimental writing in a way easier to read specifically because it usually doesn’t ask me to perform an act of “close” reading to get to the kernel of truth in the text (in the usual sense of that word).

    Even in a great deal of language writing, which I’m sometimes very critical about, there is a surface effect, the play of the signifier, but no depth to figure out, no Meaning under the surface. That’s one of the elements of Language writing I actually do like and respond to…

    “Easier to read” might not be the right term here: it’s a different way of experiencing a text…

    For example: isn’t the supposedly difficult John Cage really about a kind of vigilant ease?

    I would argue that a great deal of experimental writing moves closer to music than to argument…the “difficulty” is its refusal to draw even the thinnest of lines between style and content…

    Or the difference between a Bolano short story and one by Carver…both have an undercurrent of dread/menace, but in Bolano that is because it is the way of Bolano’s world, menace has no cause nor explanation, whereas in Carver there is something in the landscape of the story itself that appears to be causing this unease, we just need the key, the root cause of this dread…

    The psychological Carver in contrast with the existentially unmoored Bolano…

  3. Johannes

    A lot of people who have taken high school and college classes know how to do a close reading. So the new critical poem becomes the “accessible” poem just as they wanted it. That’s why it’s so hypocritical that say Poetry Magazine promotes these easy-close-read poem as anti-academic and populist, when they are in fact “populist” *because* they are “academic.” This hypocritical rhetoric of Poetry Foundation is terrible because it perpetuates the idea that poetry is “difficult” and snobby, rather than inviting people to engage with writing that challenges them in some way. And at the same time these folks are perpetuating a very restrained idea of poetry, very wellwrought urnish poetry.


  4. Joyelle McSweeney

    Hey interesting distinction, James– I was trying to work this out re. the difference between The Wrestler and the Black Swan– the first Carver, the second Bolano…? The first one participates in psychology, the second in the genre of psychothriller… The first puts character first, the second puts genre first… Although maybe in both cases the figur eof hte protagonist is a vehicle for costumes, violence, and genre! My favoriet part of the Wrestler is the ‘fireman party’- nothing ‘interior’ to teh story ’causes’ that at all! It’s just like this excess material that is vapidly infectious, a kind of counter-libidionousness that rises up from the surface of the movie and makes a weird body for itself in an inexplicable little scene.

  5. Ryan Sanford Smith

    Isn’t inviting people to engage with writing that challenges them a perpetuation of notions of difficulty as well? Not that I think it’s a problem, I think poetry is difficult, every poem is difficult to somebody, isn’t that the entire rhetoric around ‘obscurity’, etc.? The question of whether it ‘should’ be difficult or not doesn’t really exist, it is / isn’t depending on who is reading it. It’s equally viable to say all poems are easy once we’ve done away with the intrinsic / accessible ‘true’ reading, I can give any reading of any poem if it tickles my fancy. This is why rhetoric of coming to each poem / book ‘on the terms it sets out for itself’ has always struck me as nonsense unless there’s first a belief in the intrinsic meaning, otherwise where do those ‘terms’, come from, etc. In this way any person of my view can come to any book (Collins, whoever) and make it ‘challenging’ to them, if they feel so inclined.

    Obviously some books will be more conducive to this engagement than others depending on the person. I think the real trick is to stay open to being challenged, to read Collins no matter what you think of him perhaps, to not get too comfortable inside particular aesthetic landscapes because they serve one’s own artistic whatevers; I think this is nearly impossible to do actually, at least outside of environments where it is required (i.e., school) but worth striving for.

    I’m not so on board with ideas of snobbery, and the philosophy of all-poetry-is-easy-and-difficult seems very anti-snobbery, so it works for me.

    Not that I’m attributing any of the above perspectives directly to anyone here, just more or less thinking out loud.

  6. Al Min

    Speaking of accessibility, I love that the decentralized (at least more so than prior to) nature of poetry on the internet makes all manner of work available to anyone curious enough to look. I remember it wasn’t so long ago (in high school and some of college) that I thought that the world of poetry consisted almost entirely of critically-read, award-winning books and classics. That I can find an infinite variety of totally valid ways of reading text/language (superficially, deeply, for sound, for visual, for excess, for paucity, to fight to the death to get into, to walk into easily only to be assaulted, etc.) has equally increased my love of it. Viewpoints like Collins (dismissive/totalitarian/patriarchal) for both those that hold them and those influenced by them are just sad. I don’t like everything I read either, but so what? Why should I close it off for everyone else?