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."

Both are incredible poems, I think. The experimental poetry establishment needn't bomb them. But it was right to point out certain limits of the mainstream lyric; to try to keep things moving....

The reality is we're already moving, and have been for awhile, beyond the crude oppositions of the Poetry Wars and the correspondingly outdated notions of accessibility. We're not, I would argue (against what some critics suggest), moving into any "hybrid" or "third-way" poetics (more academic terms that further cloister poetry, and risk sweeping the differences between individual works under the carpet), but rather into a 21st century where "culture" and "literature" (as even more basic categories) are already functioning much more porously themselves. Slam poetry, "performance poetry," and spoken word already pose real alternatives to poetry on the page—as do various experiments in new media. Poetry Magazine is publishing poems like Mel Nichols' "I Google Myself," and "Post-Language" poets are writing rhyming poems and putting them up on youtube. Charles Bernstein, that old championer of disjunction, closes his Selected Poems with a bunch of plain-spoken verse. What gives?

As I explore some of what calls itself poetry in our new century, I'd like to focus on two contemporary movements, or frames, that I think are helping us redefine accessibility: "flarf," and "slow poetry." One dives headlong into a culture of mass media and globalized capital flows; the other patiently works (and plays) to imagine and develop more localized cultural alternatives. The next two posts will address these "movements" in turn, which I think will prove more (and differently) accessible to contemporary readers than the two "camps" I described earlier. I hope you get something out of exploring the poets (and poems) I reference here; maybe you'll even find yourself facebooking them to your friends, or sharing them in the form of a hand-made chapbook...

But first, a little experiment: which poem are you more drawn to: "Wild Geese" by Mary Oliver or "Chicks Dig War" by Drew Gardner? Which do you feel more compelled to read, start to finish? Which do you find more "accessible"? How?

I'll address the Gardner poem (among others) in my next post, which will take a look at flarf, or, as I like to call it, "meme-surfing" (poetry in the age of the Internet).

Next week: Adam discusses a new form of poetry called "flarf".

* Pun only slightly intended.

** Both sides, interestingly enough, operated primarily in the "free verse" tradition (i.e. just as you once learned in school that a poem "rhymes," you now in all likelihood learn the opposite: that a poem "doesn't have to rhyme"). Those who might be called "formalists" found themselves curiously exempted from either of these two camps—in a kind of time capsule, readying for rebirth. And, in fact, they might just be staging a comeback, in new, 21st century forms—more on that later. (Check out poems by Lisa Jarnot, Karen Volkman, and Cathy Wagner's excellent critical piece here).

*** Most poets would be loath to identify with a camp period, let alone ones as polarized as these; some (like, say, John Ashbery) are paradoxically lumped by critics into both. (Traditional formalists, too, find themselves lumped in this way: conservative to the experimentalists, cloistered and academic to the mainstreamers.)