In yesterday's post
I mused a little about the fun of being part of an aesthetic cult, a small group of fans devoted to some obscure and underappreciated artist. Of course, this sort of thing can be carried too far; and I am well aware that many people think that with respect to contemporary poetry, it has been carried too far. Contemporary poets, many people seem to think, work very hard to make poetry itself into an aesthetic cult, and keep their tiny insular world as tiny and insular as possible. Why else would they write such difficult poems?
Indeed, I come across many people who are downright offended by poetry's difficulty ? as if it were a personal affront to them, as if the poets had erected a "Keep out!" sign (or "Keep in!," perhaps?) at their own front door. Jon Carroll's August 3 column in the San Francisco Chronicle is a case in point, and seems to capture many people's feelings about the matter. Admittedly, Carroll holds off until the last paragraph before allowing himself to deploy what must surely be Americans' favorite term of abuse ? elitist! But he deploys it all the same.
Now, it can't be denied that a fair bit of contemporary poetry is quite difficult, especially at first glance, and especially for people who haven't read much poetry. (You get better at â€˜getting' poetry by reading poems, just as you get better at appreciating painting by looking at paintings.) Nor can it be denied that a lot of people feel a lot of anxiety about poetry. I once showed a poem by Kenneth Koch to a friend, a smart guy, who felt threatened by poetry. When I asked him, later, if he had liked it, he said "I'm not really sure what it means." "Don't worry about what it means," I said, "just start with this: did you like it?" He thought for a moment and then said, in all seriousness, "Well, how do I know if I liked it?"
But the personal offense that so many people take at the existence of difficult poetry puzzles me, frankly, for a couple of reasons. First, a lot of other things are difficult, and the fact that they are doesn't seem to bother people at all. Cooking, for instance, is not easy; if it were, there would be no bad cooks. Sports aren't easy either. I know people who complain about the forbidding difficulty of poetry, but who are willing to put in countless hours working on their backhand or their golf swing. And if it's conceptual complexity we're talking about ? well, again, sports aren't simple. Someone like Jon Carroll seems to think that a person ought to be able to pick up any poem and, even without much background knowledge of poetry, immediately be able to grasp what is going on. But do they make the same demand of, say, football? In fact appreciating a game of football, or even having a basic grasp of what is going on in it, demands a considerable amount of background knowledge and perceptual training. This doesn't seem to bother people when it comes to football ? nobody says that football is "elitist" because it isn't immediately accessible to those who know nothing about it ? but for some reason it bothers immensely that one cannot immediately grasp a poem by John Ashbery. Frankly, I just don't see why this should be.
The second puzzling and troubling aspect of this line of complaint is the implication that all poetry should be the same. "I like the poems of Billy Collins," Carroll writes ? and hey, so do I. But would I want everybody to write poems like Billy Collins writes? No. I wouldn't want everybody to write poems like Ashbery or Brenda Hillman or Martin Corless-Smith write, either. In fact, we seem to have exactly the right number of Billy Collinses, and the right number of Ashberries and Hillmans and Corless-Smiths: exactly one of each. More would be unnecessary. Fewer would be, in each case, a substantial loss to the culture.
So it seems to me that those Billy Collins fans who wish that Ashbery/Hillman et al just didn't exist are just as much in the wrong as are those militant postmodernists who think that everyone should write like Ashbery or Hillman, or Michael Palmer or Lyn Hejinian. Both parties seem to think that, in reading a poet, you have to pledge allegiance to that poet's approach and sensibility, and forswear all others. And this just seems like an absurd thing to think.
I suppose that part of this stems from the anxiety-inducing assumption that there is only a certain amount of attention to go around, that every reader that devotes herself to formalistic or otherwise traditional poetry means one less reader for more radical and experimental poets (or vice versa). But personally, I doubt that there is any level of attention that is in any sense guaranteed to poetry. Moreover I think that our best strategy for winning over readers is to present as wide and various and interesting a field of possibilities as we possibly can. Just call me a big tent guy, I guess.
In fact, I think the more likely outcome will be that some poets act as gateway drugs for others. The reader who starts out innocently enough, minding her own business and reading Billy Collins on a quiet Sunday afternoon, may find herself having moved on to Seamus Heaney, then Paul Muldoon and Ciaran Carson, before she knows it. Or perhaps, looking for other humorous poets, she happens upon Kenneth Koch, and is then led to O'Hara and Ashbery, and from there she eventually comes to ? who knows? Mark Doty? Jorie Graham? Nathaniel Mackey? The possibilities are endless...