Today I read Bethany Prosseda’s blog post I Don’t ‘Get’ Poetry, reporting that a lot of people feel the major fault of contemporary poetry lies in its not being “accessible.” Prosseda tells us
I’m no stranger to poetry.
However, after going to the Hoa Nguyen reading at the University of Colorado at Boulder on February 21st, I realized that I don’t really “get” poetry. Or rather, I kind of “get” poetry, as much as it’s possible to be “gotten,” but I don’t “get” poetry readings.
And with the image “It seems that at some point, poetry went underground,” Prosseda likens poetry to the long-lost high school friend who went out and made new friends, and is unrecognized at the high school reunion. “But that’s not to say that poetry didn’t have friends because it did. It had underground friends that understood poetry and spoke its new, underground language” (italics mine).
It might be justifiably pointed out that a writer who announces her qualification for being ‘no stranger to poetry’ lying in parents who introduced her to the ‘canon’ whose only poet listed is Plath, and who asserts “I kind of ‘get’ poetry, as much as it’s possible to be ‘gotten,’ ” hasn’t set a very high bar for understanding and appreciating poetry.
Prosseda quotes one of her interviewees as saying (complaining?)
“We’re introduced to poetry as it relates to the concept of the rhyme at a young age. We all read and loved Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss and to us, that’s what poetry was. Then, when we encounter it later in high school or college, we learn that rhyming is bad and so are clichés. This new poetry is hard to understand, and we still love Shell Silverstein.” [although not enough to remember how his name is spelled, apparently]
To say that our literary tastes remain at the level of childhood is hardly a criticism of poetry’s accessibility. It means that we haven’t developed into adult readers of poetry. Most people do not read poetry, and the fact that there are poetry readings which students are required to attend is similar to the requirement that students take some basic science or math to graduate from college. A lot of people think science is hard too. The fact that students find the poetry hard follows naturally from the likelihood that they have never been deeply interested in poetry. Children who enjoy bedtime stories do not necessarily become avid readers of great literature as adults. Even an interest in creative writing is not a guarantee of an interest in poetry.
There are a lot of poems being written, published, and read out loud these days; a lot more than, say, in the fifties. There are more people, and more graduates of MFA programs, and more readings – poetry readings as they now exist came into being in the ’50′s. Prosseda doesn’t say exactly when poetry “went underground,” (after Shel Silverstein?); we’re left to guess at what point it became a stranger. The problem however may lie in a different arena.
While “poet” remains a non-paying occupation, it is one that is widely practiced as an art form. Perhaps the sheer bulk of poetry available means that more of what one reads or hears will remain more accurately just plain work that we don’t like. The concept of “accessible” is very popular today, but in the context of poetry, seems to require poetry be something automatically “accessed” by most people. In contrast, popular music, which is called “popular” because it is accessed by so many people, doesn’t require all listeners to like all popular music produced. Similarly, the fact the television drama is widely watched speaks to the widespread love of drama, not to the quality of the drama popularly sought out.
We forget how close to music poetry is – one of the reasons we “still like Shel Silverstein” is the rhythm of his rhymes; musically, his work is closer to pop music than to classical. How often do we criticize music as “inaccessible”? We like it, or we don’t like it. How popular is currently composed and performed classical music? And yet, much classical music written today doesn’t ‘rhyme.’ i.e., doesn’t satisfy our ideas of rhythm, melody, etc. Why do we feel every poet we encounter needs to be making work that we like, or even understand? And does our distaste for a particular poem or poet’s work mean there is something wrong with poetry today? That it has become “elitist?”
With music, we are more apt to say hear “That’s not the kind of music I like.” Or, “I don’t listen to classical or to modern classical music, I find it [insert negative adjective].” Poetry, while traditionally read by the well-educated, who composed a narrow elite of those from the wealthier classes, is not necessarily required to be popularly enjoyed to be considered good. Exactly because today’s world requires a college education to make a decent living, we can’t expect that everyone who goes to college becomes an educated person in that older sense of the word, whether we see that as positive or negative. Colleges are continually reminded that they are there to put people in a position to become successful members of the wage-earning sector of society. Classical educational values are routinely questioned, and often discarded as too costly for today’s educational (read, economic) needs. Our educations are far less general than formerly, leaving us little opportunity to truly become familiar with anything outside of our field.
I believe one result of the prolific dissemination of poetry around college campuses, combined with a disdain for the study of poetry, arguably can be stated as follows: even people who major in creative writing will not necessarily take to all, or even much, of the poetry they encounter. How many poets from the past do we now consider great? With how many poets from the past can we claim to be familiar? How much time do people spend actually reading poetry of any kind? Possibly the poetry one would like is more obscure, and would – in this era of massive amounts of highly accessible written material through which to plow – take more trouble to locate.
If we feel that poetry has to be widely enjoyed by the masses of people, there is in fact highly accessible poetry being written (see Billy Collins, for instance). I maintain that the phenomenon Prosseda’s blog post treats is less a fault of today’s poets or poetry than a fault of the economic constraints faced by most of us today, and the culture of consumption that requires us to spend so much time earning a living that all of our intellectual fare needs to be something we can eat on the run. Accessible, like MacDonalds or Starbucks, because, in the same way we don’t have time to cook, we don’t have time to even look for what poetry we might actually like. We don’t have time to think about why we might like it, or to study poetry, even when it’s “hard,” because we have time only for an education aimed at our primary future source of income, and for entertainment. And people who choose to take the time to make poetry their art & study it seriously get labeled as elitist members of club we’d like to be asked to join.
Maybe people who “don’t ‘get’ poetry” haven’t really spend time reading & studying it. Maybe the high school alum didn’t go underground; it’s just that there’s a lot of ground to cover, and most people don’t prioritize poetry ground.
Frankly, as a critical thinker, I’d prefer it if people who go to a poetry reading and find the poetry something that doesn’t move them, or find the venue doesn’t move them, would criticize it in terms of its inherent quality, the quality of the reading, or their own taste, and drop the whole accessibility thing. There really is plenty of accessible poetry out there. If you can’t find any poetry written today that you like, maybe you just don’t have time, or maybe you just don’t like contemporary poetry.