Accessible poetry

There’s an interesting debate going on just now over on the Poets On Fire forum about the accessibility of poetry. I haven’t joined in, largely because some other folk are saying things I’d want to say myself, and I don’t see any point in doing an electronic “Hear Hear” (Or even a “Nyaa Nyaa”) There are the predictable arguments about dumbing down, and some about ‘class’, which is, IMHO, an outmoded and irrelevant concept I don’t recognise. There’s mention of Geoffrey Hill, without whom no debate on inaccessibility is complete.

It strikes me that the fundamental argument is about what a poet’s intentions are when he or she writes a poem. If it’s to recapitulate an interior monologue relevant only to the poet, maybe with codified language and on a enclosed theme, then it’s most unlikely that I’ll get anything out of it, no matter how much research I have to undertake in order to comprehend it. On the other hand, if the poet wants to communicate emotions, thoughts or ideas to me, a reader, then I’ll consider it worthwhile trying to understand it, even if the language is specialist and the treatment convoluted.

Communication, as my late friend Brian Osborne once said, is what Colin’s all about, whether it’s in language, poetry, music, art, my previous career in scientific librarianship or any other expression of culture.

Norman MacCaig, an undoubted influence on me, famously disowned his two earliest collections, because of their unneccesary complexity and artifice. His later work achieved a purity, a transparency almost, that is understandable on many levels (hence accessible), and is completely removed from ‘dumbing down’.

Katy Evans-Bush, in her excellent blog Baroque in Hackney, today features a recording of Paul Celan reading (in German*) his most famous poem, Todesfuge (Death Fugue). I hadn’t known that he’d recorded it, and listening to it was a profoundly moving experience. I found myself, at 9am on a wet Wednesday morning, in tears. Now that’s communication; that’s an accessible poem, a great poem, not easy, but whoever said life should be easy?

* Thanks Katy


About sunnydunny

Poet, publisher, gardener
This entry was posted in accessibility, Paul Celan, poetry. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Accessible poetry

  1. Ms Baroque says:

    Hey, don’t forget to say it’s in German.

  2. Dick says:

    It’s difficult to see what kind of argument could be cobbled together to gainsay what’s stated here. I’ve just done a tour of a whole rack of American poetry journals prior to one of my rare mass submission barrages. What struck me most forcibly was the impenetrability of so many of the poems. I’m not a scholar, but I am an intelligent reader of poetry who is happy to do a bit of work towards comprehending something of depth and substance. But the seemingly willful locking up of the matter of these poems struck me as both arrogant and perverse. I have no problem with the non sequitur riffing of the Beats because so often, as Leroi Jones stated, it’s the sound that matters. Nor do I necessarily take issue with something largely formless that seeks to communicate inchoate or turbulent emotion. But these offerings were cold, lifeless things, unmoderated by any lingua franca that might enable writer and reader to share their territory.So thanks for the post!

  3. Rachel Fox says:

    I looked at that forum too…my, there was a lot of it!Personally I never use the word ‘accessible’ (well, I have a friend who uses a wheelchair and I might use it when talking to her about going out somewhere but I don’t use it about writing)…but it does seem to be a word that gets writers (and poets particularly) in a tizz. Is there really a big advancing army telling poets they must be ‘accessible’ or hand in their quills and PCs…if there is I certainly haven’t come across it (maybe it keeps to cities and hasn’t made it to the small towns yet). If anything I have come across the opposite at times – a kind of sneering disdain for anyone using simpler methods and language and styles, for anyone who writes for an audience other than the academic ‘in the know’ poets. I write for my friends and people like them…and none of my friends are poets or poetry professors. I don’t see that changing…I know the world will never be the big friendly place I sometimes imagine (cue John Lennon) but I find this quality vs street argument more than a little depressing. I like a whole range of poets and poetry…we all have our personal tastes, subjects and ways of writing that appeal more to us for lots of different reasons. Sometimes we even like different poems at different times of life – things we looked down or couldn’t understand suddenly become our very favourites. I like both the Liverpool poets and Lemn Sissay (who were mentioned at the beginning of the POF Forum too) but I also like lots of other poets (some even in funny foreign languages). I guess my poems might possibly be called ‘accessible’ one day and that’s me damned and thrown out with the rubbish. Oh well…I’ve been there before…it’s not so bad…

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