"Ordinary Sun" vs "accessible poetry" (pt 4): Collins, Robinson, Henrikson

by on Apr.29, 2011

A couple of days ago I wrote a post about Billy Collins’s poem “Introduction to Poetry” and the common but misleading rhetoric of “accessible poetry.” This particular poem is interesting to me for several reasons: the way it posits the teacher’s relationship to students as the model of the poetic encounter, the way he rewrites Plath’s “Arrival of the Bee Box” to be mostly unviolent (and the way he writes out the historical connections in that poems to race etc), and, most of all, the final image of the students beating up with hoses in order to find meaning.

This final image is interesting to me for a lot of reasons. It posits that the poem is not in fact “accessible” to the students precisely because there is no deeper meaning, yet posits this as a meaning for students to get: its anti-meaning is its meaning. Part of Collins’s crux is this paradox, and the result is that almost all of Collins’s poems are about poetry (I’m serious): poetry can mean non-meaning, so to speak.

The hose-beating is further interesting to me in that it – more than the overt bee-reference – invokes Plath’s bees: the model of art that “swarms” (media swarms) and her invocation of “atrocity kitsch,” the poem goes Abu Ghraib on Collins, connecting it with wider historical contexts, opening the poem up. And in a poem that is meant to be non- or anti-violent in its rhetoric, it sugggests the affinities between art and violence.

There’s an interesting article up on HtmlGiant today in which Adam Robinson reviews Matt Henrikson’s new book Ordinary Sun by relating the story of him trying to convince his mother to accept the “non-purposive” language of Henrikson as beautiful:

I’m reading Valéry now as fodder for a conversation I’m having with my mom, in which I hope to justify Matthew Henriksen’s abstruse but beautiful book, Ordinary Sun, out now from Black Ocean. It was a valuable challenge to have Mom read these poems to me because her disinterestedness problematized the book. She’s not willing to see the poems as incommunicative but lovely because she is only interested in this “purposive language.”

Holy tissue made of glass,

my tongue is a flame
you touch with your finger,

a flame I try to swallow, bitter
little bird I am, mother day.

Which, come to think of it, I don’t get either. I think it’s lovely though, and eerie and kind of like what I want heavy metal lyrics to be. The poem is finely-tuned and sensate and works for me that way, which is all I ever ask of poetry. Matthew Henriksen is extraordinarily skillful with sharp, provocative language. That’s what brings me back to the book every time, and what fuels my conversation with Mom. I want to defend Henriksen’s considered lines against the priority she ascribes to communication.

Isn’t “non-purposve language” a way of describing Collins’ urge for the non-decodable language? Here it is notable that Robinson takes the same pedagogic rhetoric as Collins’s poem; but it’s also notable that he’s trying to explain “non-purposive’ language to his MOTHER, not his students; the power dynamics are different!

But both Robinson and Collins are actually anti-accessible in some sense: what they posit is that students/mothers want the words to be more meaningful, want to decode them. That might be the most accessible poetry. And that (not its surface or useless beauty) is why Collins is accessible: because the students actually has something they can use new critical close reading to decode.

And as I noted in the comment field to the last post, in response to James’s comments, is what characterizes the neo-new-critical aesthetics of Poetry Magazine: poems that offer themselves up to close readings with little emotional experience or challenge. Poetry Magazine is anti-Romantic in a typical academic/new critical way, or “anti-expressionist” to invoke Kenny Goldsmith’s (one of their staff writers) recent anthology.

One big difference is that neither Robinson nor Henrikson claim, as Collins does – paradoxically – that the poetry is “accessible.” On the contrary, Robinson calls it “abstruse” and – perhaps more importantly – “luxurious”; and in an interview Matt brings a religious terminology to the table, defining it as a quest for the “divine” or “an angel” (maybe Rilke’s terrible angel). But Henrikson is no less “plainspoken” than Collins in the sense that he doesn’t use words that are any more difficult (both use words that are very simple).

The “difficulty” of Henrikson’s poetry is not about access but the experience it aims to put the reader/writer through. It’s not about some cavalier stroll through poetry’s garden (picking up a bee box to listen to before putting it down, going swimming in/fucking Emily Dickinson/her poems) as in Collins, but an idea of poetry as spiritual violence that breaks us apart; in other words the poem as a hose-beating. But it’s not a hose-beating for meaning, but a hose-beating for a kind of transcendent experience. Or: Henrikson is interested in an experience of violent non-purpose-ful poetry; while Collins is interested in writing poems about a non-violent non-purposeful poetry.

Henrikson is interested in a kind of “noise” that has no place in Collins’s “accessibility” but it’s not the violence of “decoding” but exactly the kind of violence that is hard to decode: a violence of the urge toward the irrational. It is certainly “experience-able” as noise, as a kind of violence, if you’re willing to “go there”, but it won’t be “accessible” as meaning a la Poetry Magazine or Billy Collins.

I think Collins has some real nice moments in his poems but they are always contained in little metaphor-episodes, he never lets the bees out of their bee box. Henrikson is obviously invested in being eaten and deformed by the bees. Henrikson is very Romantic and not everyone wants to go “there”, to such a Shelley-esque space of bleeding on the thorns of life. I do do do but then I’m totally an unreconstructed Romantic.

2 comments for this entry:
  1. Adam Robinson

    Nicely done. Certainly Ordinary Sun put me through the ringer, at times making me feel antagonistic to it. But my admiration for the beauty of the book, so yellow, and the beauty of Henriksen’s verse kept me focused on making it work somehow. And you’re right, my dedication paid off with a kind of transcendent experience. It would be nice if Experience could take some of Meaning’s market share.

  2. We Are Dead Unless We Do Something – a conversation between Brandon Shimoda and Matthew Henriksen | HTMLGIANT

    […] its poetic attempts at translating the incommunicable both frustrating, yet filled with meaning. As Johannes Goransson wrote at Montevidayo, “The ‘difficulty’ of Henrikson’s poetry is not about […]