David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: Poesis Delenda Est!

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I’ve never much gone in for shoot ’em up movies. I’ve never seen Terminator, other than the most famous clip (“I’ll be back”). I can’t stomach Quentin Tarantino movies or, his precursor, Sam Peckinpah. I went to see No Country for Old Men because my 17-year-old son kept taunting me that I couldn’t consider myself an educated person if I didn’t, and I was worried he might be right. I wanted to walk out in the first seven minutes. My wife and I did walk out of Slumdog Millionaire during the child acid-blinding scene.

So you can imagine how queasy I’ve been as I’ve read Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s rant “On Poetry & Accessibility,” published recently in the journal Evening Will Come. In 5,000 words he ambushes, blasts, bombards, punches, stabs, strikes, and generally lays siege to a handful of poets and journalists, and when he’s not mugging them he’s abusing, censuring, maligning, and vilifying them.

And people say poets are pansies. (Well, I’ve admitted I don’t like shoot ‘em up movies.)

Wilkinson’s diatribe is in the service of disemboweling what he believes is a great evil in poetry and society, a great stink that exists between poets and our readers, and a great wickedness that readers commit in expressing interest in poetry (as New York Times editor Bill Keller does, more on that in a second). What is this great unpleasantness? Cue the horror music…accessibility.

Oh, nefarious clarity! Oh, vile sincerity!

Surely, Wilkinson’s conviction has passionate intensity, to misquote Yeats. And, believe me, I admire his dedication to his aesthetic, and the fulfillment that honest dedication provides any artist. I appreciate his interest in apologizing for the art he makes. Truth is, I don’t actually want to spend much effort here debating him.

Here’s the link to “Poetry & Accessibility.” Read it and decide for yourself where you stand on the subject.

Meantime, if I accurately understand Wilkinson’s argument, he suggests that accessibility and the spontaneously esoteric are opposites, and he favors the latter. Quoting Robert Creeley, he says the opposite of accessible poetry is poetry that is “a complex.” He dismisses poetry as a form of communion between poet, poem, and reader, and he argues that readers have the greater responsibility to the poem than the poem has to the reader. He makes a case for the primacy of the private space of the poem as “a complex” as opposed to the public space where poets and readers give and receive poetry. And here I generally agree with him when he writes that readers must shift their stance to read a poem, the same way I understand that I can’t look at a painting by Jackson Pollock the way I look at a painting by Norman Rockwell. Pollock and Rockwell ask me to approach their art differently. And here is the rub, and where I part ways somewhat with Wilkinson. Pollock and Rockwell ask me to look at their paintings differently from each other so that we can commune together in a shared, thoughtful space.

I think my characterizations represent Wilkinson’s ideas fairly. I’ve no interest in mischaracterizing his essay and then debating my mischaracterization.

I do think when he writes that poetry is “a reduction,” he’s being reductive. His conception that poetry can only be “an act of making…and an encounter” is cold. And, pro tip, when you argue that poets aren’t elitist and then use Latin to defend your point, you should put the shovel down and stop digging.

So I don’t want to debate the ideas argued in “Poetry & Accessibility.” If you’re looking for another definition of accessibility (I actually think Wilkinson’s complaint is about relate-ability more than accessibility, but that might just be semantics), then read C. Dale Young’s brief essay, “The Veil of Accessibility,” from March/April 2013 issue of American Poetry Review. The subject of accessibility seems suddenly to be in the air.

And so I too want to comment on the notion of poetic accessibility generally. Or if not that, then to argue on behalf of the communion that can occur between poet, poem, and reader, which can occur whether a poem is perceived as accessible, distorted, impenetrable, ordered, or a complex.

A poet’s relationship to poetry is both receptive and giving. A poet receives stimuli from any manner of experience — lived, linguistic, literary, and a thousand and one other means of cognizance and perception and sensibility — and she gives to readers in return (in the form of a poem). This giving is made for the benefit not only of art but also of human connection, shared intercourse, achieved relation.

When a poet publishes a poem, he is presenting his artwork in a public space. As the novelist and critic Matthew Stadler puts it, “The public is created through deliberate, willful acts: the circulation of texts, discussions and gatherings in physical space, and the maintenance of a related digital commons. These construct a common space of conversation, a public space, which beckons a public into being. This is publication in its fullest sense.”

And this is what the aforementioned Bill Keller, against whom Wilkinson begins his spree, was alluding to. (Well, now, dammit, David, you are debating Wilkinson.)

So, to be fair, here is a generous amount of a quotation from the opening of Wilkinson’s essay:

Summer before last, amid all the recession and jobs talk on Capitol Hill, Bill Keller, the executive editor of The New York Times, wrote an article for the Sunday Magazine musing that if Congress read some poetry, “it might make them a little more human.” Not that it would improve them morally, but that it might help them to “think outside the box.” Earlier in the article he confesses, “I prefer craft to spontaneity, accessible to esoteric, and poems that engage both head and heart, but that’s just me.” This is the paradox of poetry for the intelligentsia today: to be implemented as an anodyne to business as usual in the market place, but please don’t be “esoteric” in your verse. In other words, poetry should be fresh and irreverent—quirky even—but never out of reach, never just “spontaneous.”

What folks like Keller seem to want from poetry is a poem deprived of its force, a poem captured like a leopard listlessly stalking behind bars at the zoo—if not declawed, then sufficiently caged off. Indeed, a poem without poetry. Yet, what Keller says, I think, is actually indicative of poetry’s power, its vivacity, its otherness. When we want poetry to behave, it will not. When we want poetry to body forth and somehow improve the hearts and minds of our elected officials on contact, it cannot.

We are told, again and again, that for poetry to be digestible in a broadly appealing way, apparently it must be poetry paired up with something else. For Natasha Tretheway to be invited to Fresh Air, there must be a pitch; poetry beside a familiar topic. “Poetry plus” is what Marjorie Perloff calls this.

For Tretheway, that means poetry plus her biracialness. Which allows Terry Gross to ask, “What does [Obama’s election] mean to you?” For former poets laureate it is poetry plus the homelessness of a brother (Robert Hass) or poetry plus the death of a parent (W.S. Merwin); and really why should this surprise us? It just exploits the fact that poetry can speak to literally anything. And so long as the host sticks to the topics we are safe with (politics, death, family) then we will avoid having to talk about what animates poetry (the language itself, of course). So much so, perhaps, that for Billy Collins, it is poetry plus accessibility itself. Poets on “Fresh Air” are treated like 21st-Century mystics, with specialized access to their own experience. There is so little mention of language in these interviews that you might forget that poets work with words at all. Yet even Collins, the author of a book called The Trouble with Poetry, says that this talk of accessibility is now like “nails on a blackboard” to him.

Isn’t this the double bind of poetry? In order for it to command a popular audience (and Collins’s books have indeed sold millions of copies), it must deploy what we call accessibility in terms of ease of access, or lack of any apparent difficulty.

As a Southerner with sympathies, I take Wilkinson’s attack against Trethewey as bordering on, what used to be called in the county in Texas I’m from, unpleasant zealotry. At any rate, what’s “plus” about the death of a parent? We all have the burden of that to bear at some point. Poets and plumbers and presidents alike. Um, I mean, plumbers plus. Presidents plus. What is being asked for here? Poetry minus?

But, moving onto other areas, c’mon, does W. H. Auden lack force? Seamus Heaney? Emily Dickinson? Adrienne Rich? Czeslaw Milosz? Accessible poets all — by Wilkinson’s light.

And, is poetry truly “spontaneous?” Isn’t spontaneity a characteristic of, say, a tree, a blade of grass, a wave? I’m inclined to think John Keats, Walt Whitman, and John Ashbery know the difference between, on the one hand, a spontaneous thing, a natural thing, and, on the other hand, a made thing which is an artifice. An artifice, as Bill Keller says, that as just one good reader of poetry, he hopes will engage his head and heart — “that’s just me,” he says. He makes no claims against poetry that is “a complex.” He calls neither for easy nor difficult poetry to be made or disseminated. He just describes what he likes. Let the man like what he wants to like. And bless him for suggesting that members of Congress might also want to indulge.

I have no interest in the least to impugn poetry that strives to be, well, I don’t know, dis-accessible, mis-accessible, pre-accessible, unaccessible, or anti-accessible. Write whatever poetry you want to. But why attack Bill Keller and other readers for not wanting to read it? If I take Wilkinson at his word, I think he despises readers. If that’s true, then that’s naturally his prerogative.

In the end, terms such as “accessible” versus “complex” just don’t hunt. They remind me of the long, unnecessary debate about free verse versus formal verse. Whatevs, as the kids say. It’s all poetry and that’s OK by me.

Here’s what I say: Write whatever you want to. Read whatever you want to.

The poets Wilkinson disparages — and the journalists who invite the disparaged ones and others onto their radio programs — tend to write poetry that is artistically representational. Besides, I mean, they were (or are) poets laureate of the United States, for crying out loud, so you can imagine why they are being asked such viciously anti-poetry questions — like, um, “what is your personal background?” or “what do you write about?” — that so infuriate Wilkinson’s artistic sensibility which is, so far as I can tell, one that favors poetry that is artistically expressionistic.

Those terms — representational and expressionistic — to my mind at least are more historically invested and accurate antidotes to such over-emotionalized terms like accessible and complex. For one thing, they do not invite invalidation of the other. Complex, good. Accessible, bad. Representational is neither good nor bad. Expressionistic is neither good nor bad. They are filters through which a poet composes a poem and through which a reader experiences it.

Regardless of its mode of expression, poetry has a long history of inspiring readers, even readers who have political careers. In the last fifty years, poetry animated a sense of justice in the mind of Vaclev Havel. It comforted Nelson Mandela. It inspired John Paul II. It seeded the imagination in Barack Obama.

Poetry begins in experience and leads a poet toward the language to mythologize that experience. And also: poetry begins in language and leads the poet toward experience as a means to dramatize that language. Both routes are elemental and transferrable. Who’s to say which is preferable? Why ask, “What should poetry do?” Does a ballplayer ask, “What should a double-play do? a pop fly? a called third strike?” Has Walt Whitman’s accessibility diminished poetry? Sylvia Plath’s? Lorine Niedecker’s?

How about we start with a new premise: Not much diminishes poetry. Propaganda maybe. Doggerel. But poetry can take it. We aren’t pansies after all. Our kind wrote The Iliad in accessible dactylic hexameter. Our kind wrote The Divine Comedy in accessible terza rima. Our kind wrote nearly 2,000 unpublished poems in a quiet room in Amherst, Massachusetts in common meter. Our kind wrote “Song of Myself” and “Howl” and “Deepstep Come Shining” in shining free verse. Our kind have been imprisoned and exiled and tortured for writing poems. If a broadcaster from WHYY in Philadelphia wants to ask one of our kind about the murder of her mother, well that’s her business whether she wants to answer the question. And if a journalist cares to advance the idea that elected officials might govern better if they read the great art of poetry in any of its magnificent forms, why would we want to stop that?


David Biespiel is a poet, literary critic, memoirist, and contributing writer at American Poetry Review, New Republic, New York Times, Poetry, Politico, The Rumpus, and Slate, among other publications. He is the author of numerous books, most recently The Education of a Young Poet, which was selected a Best Books for Writers by Poets & Writers, A Long High Whistle, which received the 2016 Oregon Book Award for General Nonfiction, and The Book of Men and Women, which was chosen for Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the 2011 Oregon Book Award for Poetry. More from this author →