A "poetry blog" post that is actually about "poetry." (Mostly)

Today, on my way to the gym where I would be visualizing myself chased by brain-hungry zombies in order to run two miles, I tuned in to NPR for my brief drive. Amanda Hesser, author of The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century was the guest on The Diane Rehm Show discussing the process she went through to edit and compile her cookbook.

It was an interesting lens through which to consider poetic accessibility, I thought, and my brain immediately starting noodling around in those concepts as they spoke.

Possibly we’ve talked accessibility to death. I get that. I feel that in a lot of ways. But I want to follow this thread and see where I end up when using this cooking ideology as a crutch.

Hesser describes her cookbook as “not like an academic book in any way; it’s really a useful cookbook.” (Italics mine) Here is the beginning of a values divide. On one side, we have utility; on the other side, academe. Since the cookbook is unlike an academic book in any way, we can also phrase this by saying academic books are not useful.

Is poetry useful? Yes. As many of us know, Americans gravitate toward poetry at specific times: to commemorate an event, to celebrate an experience, to understand their emotions. The most popular form of poetry is the greeting card. This is also the most commercial and best selling form. It is entirely accessible; in fact, it’s only goal is to transmit meaning. The desire to be artful is often secondary, or even less important than that; perhaps we’d say the desire to be visually artful would be a primary or secondary goal.

But we don’t really consider greeting cards to be poetry. Perhaps they are simply “poetic.”

When I tuned in, Ms. Hesser was discussing the idea of “accessibility” in her cookbook. Hesser noted that the New York Times has sought to publish and promote recipes that are “accessible” to American cooks of all stripes. A listener had just called in to take her to task on this concept, citing recipes in the New York Times that required exotic ingredients unlikely to be found in various non-New York cities around the country.

This, the listener claimed, was not accessibility, but a means to limit participation in the cooking.

Does inaccessible (or, perhaps, “differently accessible”) poetry divide and conquer American readers in a similar way? Does it ask us for things—knowledge of specialized facts, familiarity with artistic traditions or methods, literary expertise—that the general public either don’t have or can’t get?

Do our readers in Indianapolis struggle to understand the purpose of syllabics? Do Kentuckians shrug their shoulders over prosody? Does alliteration make Alaskans altogether up-in-arms?

The idea of there being an exotic ingredient that is both essential and unavailable is such an interesting concept to me. It also brings up the question of what the purpose of this art form is. The obvious purpose of cooking is nutrition—let’s consider that to be like poetry’s ability to communicate information through language, which the brain digests as the body digests ingredients.

But anyone who’s eaten well knows that food has an emotional component as well—“comfort food” can transport us through time (like the lyric?) and build both physical and emotional sensations in us. I think we agree that good poetry (not all poetry) does this as well. Some poetry simply nourishes us; other poetry builds a response on an additional level.

We obviously don’t need cooking to survive. Many foods can be eaten in a raw or unchanged state. But it wouldn’t be enjoyable that way. Langauge, too, needs no poetry, but we appreciate poetry because it uses language in a way that pleases us emotionally and aesthetically while fulfilling our basic human needs.

Aesthetically, cooking takes into account taste and smell, certainly, but also the concepts of presentation, plating, portion. As these are fairly external concepts that don’t directly contribute to the purpose of cooking (to the nutritional value), but that are essential to the overall impact and meaning of the dish. Perhaps this is like form—how much poetry we serve to our readers, what adornments we give it.

Accessible cooking probably relies on common ingredients—the onion, for example, is probably the most accessible ingredient in cooking. There’s very little you can cook (aside from deserts…which are light verse?) without the onion. It is required of the cook to build flavors in most cuisines and dishes. And because language has common phrases, words (clichés?), it too relies on the accessible aspects of it to build basic meaning.

Exotic ingredients….? I’m back to that. Ingredients available to some, not to others. I face this problem often when I cook, since all DC grocery stores are one step up from a dollar store. I often can’t engage with dishes I want to cook because I don’t have access to the necessary ingredients and can’t make an appropriate substitution. Suddenly, those dishes—those flavors, those processes—are kept from me.

The early Modernists were a lot like gourmet cooks. Their ingredients were facts, figures, quotes, mythological allusions, etc. Their purposes was to build a poetry that encased the world’s great knowledge in artful garments. If you were an informed reader, this was amazeballs. If you were a gas station attendant with an 8th-grade education, you probably weren’t reading a lot of Eliot and, if you were, you weren’t enjoying all the flavors of the dish.

But then again, I’m not sure Pound et al were very concerned about having a wide reach for their work. They were more interested in cooking for their choir, to mix metaphors.

Accessibility relies on shared resources. But how do we draw lines between using highly shared resources (like cliché) and highly specialized resources (like invented syntax, grammar, obscure or non-narrativity)? One democratizes the art form; the other reserves it. One widens the readership; the other narrows it.

Of course, not all poetry is inaccessible. Accessible poetry certainly takes care of itself and finds its own widening audience without much effort. It’s the other kind, the narrowed kind, that needs our help. How can we help these other traditions? How can we put delicious but strange poems in front of readers (eaters?) so that they will at least take a bite, see if they like it, stay for the whole meal?

Accessibility versus Engagement

I was thinking tonight about art.

Specifically, I was thinking about how art is art because it creates a response in the viewer—isn’t this the fundamental definition of what we consider art? That it makes us think, feel, reconsider, review, etc? Also, I think, art is sometimes art because it is presented in the context of “being art,” which changes the way it is consumed.

But I’m already starting to digress. I then wandered over to thinking about the long-standing po-blog debate about the level of “accessibility” in poetry. Many poets turn up their nose at poetry they deem to be overly “accessible,” which I take to mean poetry they feel is pandering to an unindoctrinated audience, or trying to please the “general public,” who may or may not care about poetry as an artform to being with.

I think accessibility is becoming a dangerous term. I don’t say this because I aspire to write poems that are accessible. (But that’s an easy out. Maybe I do.) When people describe poems that are accessible, I feel they are really commenting on a given’s piece ability to engage a wide audience in its meaning or methods.

I thought, then, of something Claudia Rankine wrote in an interview soon to be published in the next issue of Marginalia. To poorly paraphrase her, she said something along the lines of how sometimes people see a film and it has no impact on them. Other times, the work engages them. It creates a response within them. Whether or not the film fits into the limitations of accessibility is irrelevant in this case. Take for example, Yoko Ono’s film “The Fly,” in which the entire film consists of a static image of a fly running across bare human skin in extreme close-up. All the while, the fly giggles. Although this film isn’t “accessible,” I would say it is able to engage an audience and spur a response. They may not like it, but they respond to it. Therefore, under my parameters, it must be art.

People often cite people like Mary Oliver as a poet of access. Mary’s poems often seem simple and plain—of nature or basic human experience, without much hooha or fanfare in the language. Mary’s books sell like hotcakes. She had, like, five books on the 2006 poetry bestseller list. Clearly, her work engages people and spurs a response, but positive and negative. It must be art.

Accessibility is linked (in its negative usages) with dumbing-down, with ease, lacking complications or excess, perhaps even a lack of intelligence or craft involved in creation. But engagement operates on different terms. America’s Next Top Model engages many people, including me, and yet, I trouble myself to consider it art. But under the terms I set forth, it must be art.

If something that is less “artful” is still “engaging,” perhaps accessibility, then, is also about high art/low art—that other troubling dichotomy. And here we get into all sorts of poetic judgments. I’ll reveal something to you. I consider Dr. Seuss to be a genius. His books still provide me a kind of enjoyment in adulthood that I found in childhood. But he is not High Art. (Not yet, at least—time is generally the hobgoblin of what is high and low in the world of Art.) I would argue that many people feel Mary Oliver’s poetry is more pedestrian (“lower”) than someone like, say, Gertrude Stein or Lyn Hejinian or others. In our little world, difficulty denies access, denies some with engagement, although I, too, argue that any response—even confusion—is still a form of engagement. Therefore, Stein and Hejinian are art.

And take, too, Claudia Rankine’s amazing book Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. An uncomplicated book in many ways: clear, concise, direct. It has exceptional levels of both engagement and accessibility and personally I think it is one of the most artful books I have read. Rankine’s other books were less “accessible” to me, but I still took from them a level of engagement. And what engages has value. Therefore, it must be art.

What do we succeed in doing by isolating the “accessible” from the “non-accessible”? Creating a culture of non-access seems to me to devalue participation by a wider audience. It creates a sort of “You over there/Us over here” split that only isolates poetry further and limits its readership. But here I expose one of my main values about poetry: that it can and should be read.

I don’t offer solutions here. I don’t have answers, just thoughts and observations that struck me while walking from campus to the car. Some people in poetry want to limit access to those who are indoctrinated. This doesn’t mean that no one outside of poets should read poetry, but that access to poetry is something to be cultivated and earned. Those aren’t bad values to have. Aren’t all good things earned over time? People rarely value what is handed to them without hard work.

But: engagement. Think about it.