What Makes a Poem Worth Reading?



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).

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."

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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.

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