What Makes a Poem Worth Reading?

poetry2_post.jpg

flickr


This is the second in a five-part series about the value of verse in the 21st century. Read the first installment here.

Typically, we hear two sides to the debate over whether (or how) poetry should be accessible. There's historical precedence to this—in the '80s, the "Poetry Wars" (all George Lucas, or U.S.-Soviet, like) flared up, with each side stockpiling ammo well into the present. In the right corner: "the mainstream," who felt poetry should appeal to a common reader, communicating universal experiences in a plain and "accessible" language (stock examples: Billy Collins, Mary Oliver; Poetry magazine). In the left* corner: "the experimentalists," who felt that language should challenge universality, undermine conventions, and renew language's "strangeness" (stock examples: Susan Howe, Charles Bernstein; L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E).


MORE IN THIS SERIES:
Adam Roberts: The Righteous Skeptic's Guide to Reading Poetry

Each side had its own claim to aesthetic and social righteousness.** Each side had its own claim to the (or "a") public. And each side was actually quite a lot more nuanced than any Wikipedia blurb (or summary from the other side!) would have you think.*** The "experimentalists," for example, wagered that their poems were accessible in that they helped us expand and redefine our understanding of what it means to "access" a poem. To leave behind a unified, "authentic" speaker and open up the meaning-making of the poem, radically, to the reader; to explore a network of associations and disjunction (rather than a single, static "subject")...was not to forsake the reader, but, in actuality, democratize the reading process! Come in, come in (these poems called)...(re)read us.

This was the "side" I chose, as an undergraduate (when I first got pulled into poems). Only problem was, on the ground, most of these "experimental" writers' (democratic! new! hierarchy-challenging!) poems were only being accessed by those with advanced degrees in literature. The institutional frameworks and reading communities just weren't there to back up their "epistemological investigations" of "irreducible alterity." If you don't have your graduate degree in comparative literature, wtf is irreducible alterity???? (Read any number of poetry blurbs and they'll assume you're in on the discussion.) It seemed problematic, at best, to suggest that this was solely the fault of an overburdened (and underfunded) public education system; these poems were, intentionally or not, meant to end up on the bookshelves of hyper-educated readers. As a higher-educated reader myself, I felt suddenly implicated. And after all, why be a snob about Billy Collins--Billy Collins was what got me into poetry!

But the other side, the backers of the Billys and Marys, didn't tackle the accessibility issue much better. It felt, at best, insulting to say that a contemporary reader needed things, as it were, simplified, and at worst socially naive and politically irresponsible. Poems about nature-walking epiphanies didn't address deforesting (let alone Monsanto or food production--where did that granola come from?). Poems about domestic (or worse, vacation!) epiphanies in a supposedly "universal" language (sorry to pick on you, The New Yorker, but...) ...seemed to reflect particular socio-economic and cultural backgrounds a whole lot more frequently than others. Now, don't get me wrong—I actually love and have been moved by some of the poems that might be called (pejoratively) mainstream. Consider Robert Hass' "Faint Music," which I first read as an undergraduate. Or Sharon Old's "When It Comes."

Presented by

Adam Roberts is a poet, educator, and post-graduate fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. More

Adam Roberts is a poet, educator, and post-graduate fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He encourages you to check out 350 Poems, part of 350.org's 2009 day of climate action. More of his writing can be found online at The Beagle, The Bee, And The Sea.

Saving the Bees

Honeybees contribute more than $15 billion to the U.S. economy. A short documentary considers how desperate beekeepers are trying to keep their hives alive.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Entertainment

Just In