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