Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Accessible Poem: Hot, Ready and Edible at a Diner Near You

First Installment: Accessible Poem                                                                                        
Accessible:  adj. 1.) That which can be easily approached, entered, reached or used: an accessible road; accessible ruins. 3. obtainable; attainable
The diner of accessibilty has shiny chrome seats with padded red cushions that swivel when you sit on them. Coffee comes in white mugs, hot and topped off every fifteen minutes. A bold-faced black clock on the wall places you squarely in time. Menus in this Red Hawk Diner are also accessible: Readable font. Everything clearly spelled out: Breakfast Special: 2 eggs, your choice of side (bacon, ham or sausage patties), hash browns, toast, $4.99.  Clear and to the point. Skim through and you've got it.  Make your order, eat and out. Life as a direct equation. No fuss, no muss. And handed to you on a clean, white plate. The whole scene is comforting, expected, easily read. 
         Accessible here means the familiar, the known. Mystery kept to an unnoticeable level. Of course, people can be unpredictable, so they may surprise you, even in the Red Hawk Diner, but for the most part, it is the experience you want exactly as you imagined. You chew and swallow. Spread strawberry jam on your toast from one of those tiny plastic tubs. Life as it should be.
   I enjoy the accessible dining experience. But when I read and write poetry, I do not seek out to read nor long to write the “accessible poem.” But, many readers and writers of poetry only want that experience. Give me the poem I can understand at one reading/hearing. Don’t make me work or think too deeply to understand this piece of writing. The most common responses from my college poetry students (after reading an assigned book of poems) or that I overhear from all kinds of people after poetry readings are: “Such and such poem was the best because it was accessible.” Or its converse: “That poet/poetry book/poem wasn’t very good because he/she/it wasn’t accessible.”

            I’ve been wondering for a long time now: Why is “accessibility” (as in quick and easy access) so prized by many readers of poetry? How does this impact the poets who are writing now? What does it mean to be a reader who "requires" all poetry to be accessible, ignoring "other" poems that might require extra thought and multiple readings to yield their riches? And finally, what DO people mean by an “accessible poem,” anyway? I’m going to address the final question first: What do people mean by an “accessible poem” anyway?
            Frankly, sometimes valuing the “accessible” poem simply means that the student or reader does not have a developed vocabulary. I recently had a group of Introduction to Poetry Writing students, who were placed in groups to discuss imagery found in poems by Carl Sandburg, Walt Whitman, Robert Bly, Louise Gluck and Mark Doty. Each of the groups was assigned one of the poems to look at how the imagery was working in the poem and share their findings with the class. Minutes after someone read the assigned poem to their group, hands shot up from all over the classroom: "What does 'haunches' mean? asked the group looking at Carl Sandburg's famous "Fog" poem. "What does "billow" mean, asked another group? A third needed the definition of "shimmering," from Mark Doty’s poem. And the final group asked about the word “sinewy” from Walt Whitman’s poem "The Runner," which granted, of the three words, was probably a more challenging vocabulary word.                            
            This was very revealing to me. I realized that many who value the “accessible” poem are asking that their poems have a simple vocabulary.  Newspapers, with the exception of the New York Times and possibly The Washington Post, long ago acquiesced to this demand from their readers and required their reporters to write on a 3rd through 7th grade reading level (I think USA Today is shooting for 1st grade level! ) As a poet, who wants to create with a wide array of words much as a painter expresses herself with a vivid array of colors, I’m very resistant to this idea that a poem must limit its word choice/palette to ensure that “everyone” will be able to instantly “get” it.  What a sad state of poetry we’d be in if a poet such as Gerard Manley Hopkins with his sensuous, sensory-rich score of words had chosen  to scale his celebratory songs back in order to be easily plumbed. Here, for instance, is the first stanza of his poem “Pied Beauty”:

                        Pied Beauty ~Gerard Manley Hopkins

Glory be to God for dappled things--
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
       For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced--fold, fallow, and plough
      And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

            This is one of my favorite poems. When I first came upon it in early high school, I had no idea what “couple-colour” or “brinded” meant. (I knew what “dappled” and “stipple” meant from the reading I had done in my childhood.) But, I caught the spirit of the poem as my teacher read it out loud; I was uplifted by its celebration of the unlimited variations and beauty in the natural world. And I loved the music of the words, the playful alliterative sounds— “Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls, finches’wings”—pouring down this short two-stanza poem. Words as vivid waterfall!  And written at a time when a poet was allowed to actually capture joy and sentiment and celebration in a poem (unlike in our modern, jaded age.)  His vocabulary is challenging by the mere combination of words.  But it is well-worth the re-readings, the looking up the definitions—the meaning gaining clarity with effort—and well worth the effort.

            Why not revel in the wild beauty of our extensive language?  Words have a texture, a life, an interesting history of their own. And the English language has a tremendous range of words with which we might use to express ourselves!  An old friend of mine, Regina, who came here from Aachen, Germany and lived in the US for 8 years, once told me she could no longer write her children’s stories in her native German.  “The English language has so many more choices to describe emotions!” she exclaimed. Poetry would become a gray garden if poems were only written with a 7th grade vocabulary.  Some might call this elitist—but I feel that it’s actually uplifting to invite another human being to broaden their language and thus, broaden their own range of ideas. Language belongs to everyone freely; it is most democratic.  I am free to read more, to look up words in a dictionary or online (how simple nowadays to find a definition of anything!), to broaden my own palette of words.

            My students tell me they don't like to read books anymore. They like magazines and newspapers, internet gossip and facebook status updates, tweets and emails--most written on a 3rd grade - 7th grade level. Some tweets and emails are only written out as acronyms, not even words at all. If that's what you read on a regular basis, how will you gain new worlds? And if you never stretch your vocabulary beyond the basic 7th grade level, how could a large history of poems be accessible to you? William Butler Yeats would be inaccessible, as would Mark Doty with his luscious landscape of words, as would Coleridge, Roethke, Eliot, McHugh, Robert Hass, Louise Gluck, Anne Carson, Dylan Thomas or Gerard Manley Hopkins and on and on. This is not to say everyone should "like and appreciate" my favorite writers, but that there is more to the world of poetry than William Carlos Williams (whom I also love and admire his aesthetic—hoping to write a poetry that embraced America’s democratic ideas. It was once said that Williams hoped that if any one of his poems were placed in a roadside restroom and found by any person, no matter their age, sex, class or level of education, that that person would be able to be read and understand his poem.) We have many wonderful narrative poets based in Pittsburgh who write straightforward stories in verse, with little to no complicated vocabulary in them. Mary Oliver and Billy Collins, both of whom I admire greatly for different reasons—keep their language easily open to the public--though Oliver, at least, it could be argued, might be "inaccessible" on another level.

            Any adult I know with a wide vocabulary gained that vocabulary from years of reading books. When I was a fourth-grade girl reading The Secret Garden, Little Women, Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights among other books, I don't remember running to my parents every other word and asking them to define something for me. Mostly because I was caught up in the world of the book and didn't want to break that spell. I would eventually understand a difficult word’s meaning by the context it was written in. Reading a long novel, I could gradually deduce the word’s meaning from how it was used over and over again. I wasn't thinking about definitions of words. I was enthralled by and immersed in the spirited sister, Jo,or the storm on the great heaths, or the locked snagged garden full of old rose bushes. I gained a wider world because I acquired new WORDS!

If, for instance, my chosen word is “sussurations”(a word that the poet Robert Hass favors and I love for its soothing, hushed line of “s” sounds throughout), I don’t want to dismiss using it for the sake of gaining more readership. I do not find myself worrying about whether or not a reader understands a particular word in my poem. 
Rosie contemplates the mystery of it all.
As an artist, a poet, I am free to find the precise, exact word I need to create a mood, a song, a tone, a story, no matter how few or many syllables the word contains.  As in the visual arts, there are minimalist painters who choose to limit their palettes to black, gray, white, red, and there are also the Joan Mitchells (an abstract expressionist from the 50's/60's) whose enormous canvases fairly explode in color (check out her beauty, "Wet Orange" at our Carnegie Museum of Art!) 

Don't get me wrong: I love the idea that somebody, somewhere might even read my poems once in a while! But, my job is to the art, to the poetry--and I want to honor that voice inside that, for  who I am and what my aesthetic is, values lush song and sound and substance over more directly stated stories. There is room in the poetry world for all aesthetics. I just worry when the ever-dwindling readership and audience so loudly wants only accessible poems.  

Next Installment:  The InAccessible Poem: Too Hot to Handle or Why Are You Making Me Think So Hard?  


  1. It sounds like there's a lot of overlap in our student demographic -- I, too, struggle with and against "accessibility." You have beautifully articulated the issue -- and the reasons why it is worth the struggle to ask students to broaden their vocabulary, so they can see gradations of meaning that were previously invisible to them.

  2. Thanks, Sharon! I actually had a much longer post I kind of wanted to write, but I decided it would be a blog post in its own right instead of a comment. :) My whole comp class now is set up to elicit exactly this discussion. Paper 2 asks them to read two books, one fiction and one non-fiction, addressing the same subject (Doomsday Book by Connie Willis and Great Mortality by John Kelly, both talking about the Black Death among other things).

    Then I ask them to compare/contrast the ways in which the books teach this subject, and to evaluate which is the more effective teacher. And over and over again class discussion crashes against the rocks of accessibility -- many of them want so, so badly to argue that easier = better teacher, but with careful work I can push them to test that.

    Thankfully, there is almost always one poor soul who writes the paper that makes this argument in a way that illuminates its innate stupidity: "Doomsday Book is the better with teaching because when I read Great Mortality it was so dry and crunchy because of all those facts and big words that I got really bored and it was hard to make it all the way through because of all those facts." There's always a point where it becomes clear that this argument says little about the books -- and a lot about the writer of the student paper (as one student paraphrased last semester, "I am lazy and not especially bright, and I can't make it all the way through a book written at the 10th grade level.")

    And that's the root of accessibility. It's about the reader, not the poem, and it's not usually flattering to the reader. The students who can see that become dramatically more ready to rise to the challenge. It's a fun point in the semester. :)

    That said, I'm always more willing to read Prufrock than "The Wasteland," and I tend to prefer Shakespeare to Milton, and I've never felt the urge to go beyond page 6 of Ulysses, so there's that.

    I cross posted this to facebook so you can find it faster!