On Accessibility...Again

I still get tweaked every time I see Kooser or Gioia opining that poets and poetry should be more "accessible." Note that the audience they love to say they write for--the readers put forth as Those For Whom Responsible and Non-Elitist Poets Write--seems to be made up almost entirely of straight, romantically-blue-collar white men. O girder, O great pails of lunch! Somewhere, Kooser answers an interviewer's question about accessibility with what I think of as The Anecdote of the Shambling Man: he speaks of a man "shambling"--seriously, he says shambling--up to him after a reading and stammering thanks for the mighty accessible poems. Why does Kooser's cheerily and often offered portrayal of this shambler seem far more condescending than, well, an "inaccessible" poem? Kooser has also stated that in selecting work for his American Life in Poetry project, he looks for poems with "a certain charm." Ay, me...how is it he's sure that Shambling Man's heart, 'neath that authentically dirt-caked Dickies workshirt, aches for charming poems? And whose idea of "charm"? I'm sure Richard Siken's Crush meets Kooser's accessibility requirement... It often seems that when there's a call for more "accessible poetry" what is really desired is more "accessible and charming [pleasantly palatable, etc.] poetry."

The idea that the "masses" don't read more poetry because poets aren't writing accessibly enough is so misguided, such a waste of energy, as to make my stomach tense up. There is PLENTY of entirely accessible poetry out there that isn't being read by most of the reading population. They might read Collins, but they don't read Duhamel or Hoagland or Thomas Sayers Ellis: why? Eileen Myles is perfectly "accessible"; why are my neighbors not reading her? Marketing, marketing. "The people" LOVE poetry; they buy up Maya Angelou and Mattie Stepanek and Jewel and Tupac like 2-for-1 chalupas. If Lyn Hejinian was on Oprah, they'd buy up Lyn Hejinian. And chances are they'd LIKE her work--and not because Oprah does, but because once you get over the hump of picking it up in the first place, it's GOOD. I've given My Life to some of the most poetry-unaware barely-want-to-read-books-at-all people out there: my family members. It was like giving Life to Mikey.

When people say, or shamble up to stammer, that they don't usually feel like they "get" poetry, that they never knew poetry could speak to them, that it always seemed like writers were trying to conceal the poem's "real meaning," they are not talking about their encounters with the works of Gertrude Stein or Bruce Andrews. They are talking about their high school or college encounters with Keats. No matter HOW many contemporary poets write accessible poems--let's say we ALL do--we will still need to penetrate the Poetry-B-Gon shields people put up after encountering Keats (et al) in school, likely introduced by a teacher who's squeamish around Keats, too...at least until these shields are bred out of humankind over many generations. How will this happen, if it ever happens? I think a good bit of it is up to high school English teachers. Many (most?) kids love poetry, from rhyming picture books to Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky, before they hit middle or high school. Whether or not they've ever seen a boa constrictor, "I'm Being Eaten by a Boa Constrictor" feels relevant to their lives in a way that "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" does not. I'm not saying the "classics" should not be taught in high school--I'm saying that the classics one chooses, especially to kick off a poetry unit, should be very carefully picked with an audience of teenagers in mind. Meaning: scrap Poe's "The Bells" and teach "Alone"; do Crane's "[In the desert]" instead of or before "War is Kind"; do "I'm Nobody" and "I Like a Look of Agony" and maybe even "Wild Nights!" before "Hope is the Thing with Feathers." Actually--never do "Hope is the Thing with Feathers." High school may be too early to introduce "The Red Wheel Barrow"--because, while accessible at the language level, it might not be accessible at any other to most in that age group. Do Blake's "The Garden of Love," Browning's "Porphyria's Lover." Suck it up and do "Richard Cory" but NOT "Mr. Flood's Party." And if you're going to do Keats, for godsakes step away from the urn...


V said...

On the one hand, I totally agree with you, but as an English teacher myself who, obviously, loves poetry and, I think, teaches it with great passion and offers great poems--it is SO difficult to do. I think high school is too late to start on this kind of thing. By hs, they already have a wall of resistence built up to such things.

I say get them at least familiar with really great poems and allow children to understand a very surface level of a poem when they're, say, 10, and then see it again at 15, and again, on their own perhaps, when they're in college. They'll get something more out of it each time. (I think this is kind of Kenneth Koch's Rose, Where Did You Get That Red idea).

This whole idea of things being accessible is, I think, about a lot of people being lazy and not wanting to be moved to think about things any more deeply than they have to.

Mostly, I guess, I'm frustrated, because it seems that no matter how hard I try to do a good job teaching poetry to my ninth graders, they still hate. Even if it's a REALLY good poem. Even if it's an ACCESSIBLE poem.

Charles said...

I wholeheartedly agree with what you've said here.

David said...

This is precisely why I support Collins' Poetry 180 initiative for high school students.

Many of the poems included may not speak to me as a writer, but they are "accessible" for students grappling with metaphor and meaning, identity and intentionality.

Collin said...

I agree that there is plenty of accessible poetry out there, and if poets marketed themselves, they might have a few more readers.

Sadly, there seems to be many poets who find the idea of publicizing themselves, their work and their books as distasteful or beneath them. I've ranted and raved about this for ages.

If you're going to write and publish and want people to read the work, you're going to have to sell yourself. Those who sit idly by and wait for the masses to flock to their poetry...the biggest niche market in literature...will be waiting a mighty long time.

This attitude is why poetry has become a big circle jerk.

Sam of the ten thousand things said...

The masses will read B. Collins, laugh, buy his books, laugh some more-- then forget. They'll read one James Wright poem, just one, or one Mary Oliver poem or Rumi or Buson or Bishop or Celan or Clifton... and their lives will change forever.

DC Food Blog said...

It's interesting and your post is wonderful. As the son of an English teacher and the head of a school for the arts, I've seen and heard about the supposed inaccessibility of poetry, paintings, etc. To me the key for educators is freeing students from the linear and the binary and then freeing people (ourselves too) from the shame of not "knowing," of a pressured perfectionism that encourages people to reject the unfamiliar to save face or fit in. -- J in DC :)

Ali Davis said...

O girder, O great pails of lunch! A-f***ing-men! I'm so sick of white, hetero, middle-class men congratulating each other on the back for writing poetry for more white, hetero, middle-class men.

As a former high school English teacher and former high schooler, I can say high schoolers love poetry. They just don't know they love poetry. It's all about love and death and wanting. Once they read James Wright's "Autumn Begins...," or Andrew Hudgins' "After the Dance," or Martin Espada's "Colibri," or Julianna Baggott's "You Found me in the Dry Tub...,"
they love poetry.

But they have to find it first.

This is why I choose to write poetry about abuse and sex and violence and the body, because I was a fourteen year-old girl looking for those poems, and I could not find them.

poet CAConrad said...

Oh my GOD! Billy Collins has an anthology out that he's edited where he goes on and on about the same issue! In fact, (hehehehe!) he actually has this STORY he tells about some poor little girl who looks up to him and says (paraphrasing here of course) Mr. Collins when I read a modern poem I feel like my brother is shoving my head under water in the pool.

He looks down to her and says, OH my child (I'm really exaggerating my paraphrasing here of course, but it's so much fun) POETRY SHOULDN'T BE THIS HARD! Poetry should be something that is EASY TO READ MY DEAR DEAR DEAR CHILD!

Hehehehehe! Collins cracks me up!

Emily Lloyd said...

CA, I don't mean to swing out in that direction at all, really--I mean, are you comparing my pov to Collins's or Gioia's?

I'm not saying the poetry we give to high schoolers should be more accessible. I'm saying it should be more applicable. Very few fourteen-yr-olds, even the most sensitive, are capable of getting it up for an ancient urn. Accessibility honestly has nothing to do with it, for me..I don't believe the reading of poems should be "easy" and Collins's poem again tying down the poem and torturing it actually kind of annoys me. I believe the reading of poems should, if possible and especially when teaching/introducing, be intriguing or surprising and, when uncomfortable, uncomfortable in an interesting, not a dead-boring way. Crane's bestial creature, squatting in the desert slurping up his heart...well, shit, I found it intriguing as a teenager and still do. But, again, some easy accessibility...NOT what I'm advising for high school teachers. I say, give them a few excerpts from Tender Buttons and ask what they think. Not "what it means" but what they think. I'm saying this. Better that poetry should be like playing with mud or mixing chemicals and seeing what reacts or even watching a horror movie at that point in one's education than like, well, trying to care when one doesn't. I have never taught high school and know that many, if not most, teachers might not have the freedom to teach the poems they'd like--one has to teach to the state test, etc. But anyway...the whole argument is about why people stop liking poetry as teenagers and I think it might have something to do with which poems they're exposed to, perhaps even more than what the exposure looks like (that is, do they have to "find the meaning," etc). If you have to teach canonical poets, there are poems in their work that might intrigue or speak to kids more than perhaps those poems most frequently taught. And if you DON'T have to teach the cannon...I'm NOT saying just teach nice culturally diverse friendly confessional narratives in its place. Because, frankly, a lot of that shit is boring too. I'm saying give them poems that will freak them out, that they'll think about for longer than it takes to read them, if at all possible because they can't help themselves...so, yeah, throw 'em Stein. In my dream high school I'd also throw 'em Catherine Wagner...

Emily Lloyd said...

That's "the canon," of course. Good lord, CAC, I hope I didn't come off like Collins. That was NOT my argument at all. Eek.

And Jonathan: the shame of "not knowing": yes. For students and ideally teachers, too. My high school English teachers, I swear, felt this shame themselves when it came to poetry. They made noises of dread themselves when the poetry unit came around (priming us all for its failure). And perhaps because of this shame, they insisted that every poem had One Meaning, and worse, they insisted that W C Williams's RED (blinking like neon) wheel barrow was about Communism..

the machinist said...


Amen. I'm teaching at NYU this semester, & even in undergrad, the students have the idea that good poems are 'ambivalent & vague & universal.'

That's a quote.

While I was teaching high school English for a bit, I saw many great teachers. I didn't see so many great teachers of poetry.

What we need is something of a paradigm shift in the way poetry is introduced & fed to us.

Just a simple paradigm shift. I'm on it.

Anne said...

"ask what they think. Not "what it means" but what they think."

That right there. Yes. That.

Obviously I didn't get scared away from poetry in junior high/high school (though some may wish I had *grin*), but I got so tired of being given a poem to "analyze" and expected to solve it like a math problem. Bonus points if you could identify a Christ figure and a statement about The Human Condition. I don't want to say that content and meaning shouldn't be talked about, far from it -- just that there are many other dimensions to a poem, which is what makes them POEMS for godsake instead of essays or newspaper articles!

The moment I fell in love with poetry was when I was introduced to the concept of paradox -- that a text could mean two contradictory things at the same time. Good little Gemini that I was and am, I was all over that. That concept is what got me past the whole "solving for x" method of trying to understand poems, and into a place where I could let poems be what they were and approach them on their own terms -- seeing poems as something more than just a pretty way to tell a story.

I think you gotta start young, though -- teaching little bitty kids to find joy and playfulness and pleasure in language for its own sake. If they can get that (which is, of course, a natural way for little kids to approach language, until it's beaten out of them) then I think they won't be intimidated by poetry, and they'll be able to enjoy poetry that gives them more than just a story in fancy language.

Robert said...

As a middle-aged middle-class hetero- white guy, I totally agree that "accessibility" is overrated, especially when it comes to young people. When I was a teenager I couldn't imagine any poetry more exciting than John Lennon singing "I am a walrus." The fact that I didn't know its "real meaning" was way beside the point. And yeah, do Blake's "The Garden of Love." Actually I suspect teenagers are as diverse as everyone else: some will get it up for a Grecian urn, and some for tender buttons.

David said...

Let me first say this: rarely does Collins give me a hard-on.

Do I support Collins' Poetry 180? Fuck yes - for my younger students in the beginning stages of studying poetry. Am I a white, hetero male? Yep. Should the race card be played here to suggest I'm slapping myself on the back for teaching the "man's" brand? Give me an effing break.

Of course "accessibility" is not the aesthetic barometer we should use when trying to awaken within students a fire for poetry. But there needs to be a methodology here that takes into account the need for developmentally appropriate introductions happening in stages. You don't throw calculus at a 9th grader and expect her to get it, and even if she does, it would not be realistic for her to appreciate it.

So too with literature - Collins' is right that students in their early teens often struggle with complex metaphors and unconventional narrative or poetic devices, and shut down upon being beaten over the head with language they can't crack or appreciate. It is only beneficial to start students out with poems that are both stunning and more on the transparet end. Then blow them away with Catherine Wagner after opening the door.

Peter said...

Oh this is so right on! Thank you.

Justin Evans said...

This is a response I wrote to a blog on the issue of teaching poetry to high school students:

Yes, yes, yes.

I just finished introducing my sophomores to my poetry unit. My first rule was that we were going to abandon the "meaning thing" until we had decided first and foremost: "Do I like this poem."

I meant it, too. No I don't get rid of meaning, but I take it off the top of the list and put it last. Dead last.

We are going to listen to poets reading their own poetry. we are going to write our own poems, we are going to study figurative language and rhythm and meter, and we are going to talk about our immediate reactions to the poems---all before we discuss what the poem is supposed to mean or what the poet was trying to say.

I have been teaching poetry like that for five years now, and I know there is a difference in how the kids look at poetry.


I give my students an anthology of 20 poems I like. I have Collins, Williams, Stafford, Neruda, Plath, and the like. Then I bring in poems for the students to mimic in their own writing.

Any poem I teach, the students can challenge me to explain why I like it on a personal level.

rochelle said...

Robert said: "Actually I suspect teenagers are as diverse as everyone else: some will get it up for a Grecian urn, and some for tender buttons."

Busted! I actually stole my high school honors English textbook in 1980 (England in Literature, 1963, Scott, Foresman and Co), precisely for the poetry that was in it. It was probably the first time where I actually "got" literature--finding poems to be rich chunks of lovely code. It took hold around Robert Burns and kept me rapt through Dylan Thomas. I flirted a bit with English major-ism in college and took a couple kick-ass poetry courses, but honestly, as an adult, haven't read much poetry, maybe because no one has given me such an assignment. I gurantee you that if I took a poetry class again, I would love the shit out of it, but I can't really say why I don't seek it out on my own. I've had people ask, when they read my essay or fiction work, if I'm a poet, so obviously, it's stuck with me.

In a related note, my 9th grader is in honors English lit right now. The other day she randomly blurted, "Anne Sexton." I couldn't figure out how in the hell she would know about Anne Sexton, until she later mentioned that they were reading her as part of their poetry unit, in a context of talking about post-partum depression. C'mon, now! Several girls in her class probably haven't even started their periods. That seems like a bizarre choice to me, even moreso for boys whose voices are still changing.

In a slightly different context, I provided this quote from Animal House earlier this week, on a different blog:

Professor Jennings: Okay…don’t write this down, but I find Milton probably as boring as you find Milton. Mrs. Milton found him boring, too. He, uh, he’s a little bit long-winded, he doesn’t translate very well into our generation, and his jokes are terrible.

Diane K. Martin said...

I have commented a bit on this subject over at my blog, but no one has seemed to notice. Come over if you're interested.