Sunday, March 08, 2009

The Trouble With Billy Collins [part 1]

Note: This is essentially an unfinished essay, started in 2000 and abandoned a couple of years later. The essay discusses the idea of accessibility in contemporary poetry, using David Berman and Billy Collins as its primary examples. Originally, the essay was going to cover another 5-6 poets in an attempt to rethink how accessibility can be applied to considerations of poetry.


Accessibility has increasingly become a key ingredient of public discussions of contemporary American poetry, particuarly when those discussions focus on the general reader’s flight from poetry. Those who call for more accessible poetry—for poetry that, like prose, can be paraphrased—frequently want a poetry that can compete with fiction for a readership, demonstrating in the process a tendency to equate poetry’s relevance with its sales volume. On one hand, postmodernism, with its indeterminacy and theoretical apparati, is to be avoided; on the other hand, modernism, with its cultural superiority and white-maleness, is the bugbear. Both modernism and postmodernism, the story goes, have diminished the art’s audience outside the university. Poetry has become a specialized field, and as a result no one reads it, though everyone seems to be writing it.

The issue of accessibility in poetry is largely a matter of comfort zones. By watching many films, American have learned, perhaps unconsciously, the language of film. These same people, if they read just ten books of poetry each year, would learn the language of poetry and would come to enjoy ostensibly “difficult” poets as they enjoy “difficult” films. Poetry is not beyond the average reader, whether she is located on campus or off it. And poetry does not need to be “narrative” poetry to attract a larger readership. As it was practiced before film and modernism, narrative has become less viable aesthetically. To narrate in the mode of the nineteenth-century novel is to pretend modernism and film never occurred, for the narrative strategies introduced, developed, and complicated by modernist and postmodernist fiction have become further developed and complicated by film.

When Dana Gioia writes of “the inability to establish a meaningful aesthetic for new poetic narrative” (in “Notes on the New Formalism”), he does so as one of New Formalism’s most articulate apologists. Although much of Gioia’s critical writing centers on metrical verse, he has called for more narrative in American poetry as a means of regaining some of the lost audience for poetry. That he also calls attention to the absence of powerful narrative strategies among contemporary poets is significant because Gioia, more than most poet-critics, has a vested interest in seeing narrative poetry flourish. If narrative poetry takes off, he can claim (as he does for metrical poetry) to have been one of its staunchest promoters. Despite Gioia’s efforts, however, New Formalism and New Narrative poetry have not put poetry back into “mainstream American culture.” Most of these poets, like other contemporary poets, publish in academic quarterlies, teach for a living, and give readings primarily at universities. (Thus, one of the more disturbing aspects of the New Formalist and New Narrative movements is the common assertion that the practitioners of formal and/or narrative verse are rebels, blasting the status quo of confessional free verse. In his essay “The Other Long Poem,” for example, Frederick Feirstein goes so far as to compare narrative poets like Dick Allen and Frederick Turner to “the formally censored Russian writers.”) This is neither a positive nor a negative reflection on those poets; it just means they’re also vulnerable to the difficulties of marketing a non-lucrative genre.


Whether or not one ascribes to Stevens’s adage “Realism is a corruption of reality,” the realism of narrative poetry is an aesthetic and intellectual limitation. Although a renewed realism has been touted as a primary strength of New Narrative poetry, realism itself is archaic as an artistic mode; and American readers are not looking for literature (or film) that reverts to tired narrative conventions. Those who criticize poetry for becoming too difficult, too narrow in its concerns, seem to ignore the critical and popular success of films, such as “Pulp Fiction” and “Memento,” that demonstrate more formal complexity and aesthetic innovation than most contemporary fiction or poetry. (And some video games in the twenty-first century also employ complex narratives that, because of the medium, are enormously more interactive than film or literature. “Max Payne” and “Max Payne 2,” for example, use graphic novel storyboards as well as the usual cut scenes. And of course there’s the “Grand Theft Auto” series, which provides revolutionary open-ended gameplay as well as a primary narrative and various sub-narratives.) Saying that most poetry is too difficult for the average person is condescending, since ‘the average person’ has enough intelligence and sophistication to decipher and enjoy films that make the plot-line of Infinite Jest seem straightforward.


Despite T.S. Eliot’s elitism, much of the poetry written today would not be possible without at least some of his proscriptions. Even the most populist (in intention if not in reality) identity-centered poetry depends upon Eliot’s (and Pound’s) tenets “that diction should become assimilated to cultivated contemporary speech,” “that the subject-matter and the imagery of poetry should be extended to topics and objects related to the life of a modern man or woman,” and that it is important “to seek the non-poetic, to seek even material refractory to transmutation into poetry, and words and phrases which had not been used in poetry before” (Milton lecture). Of course, Eliot never licensed “free verse as a liberation from form,” which is something “only a bad poet could welcome.” He undoubtedly would consider almost all contemporary poetry, with its near-total ignorance of the formal qualities of poetry, very bad indeed. Eliot’s observation that “a great deal of bad prose has been written under the name of free verse” is even more applicable now than in his time.

Of course, it is one thing to point out a problem, quite another to prescribe a solution. Stopping at identifying this impasse—between the possibilities of film and of poetry—would imply that movie-goers should not and will not read poetry: it is out of their comfort zone. Some of those championing the New Formalism or the New Narrative think reintroducing narrative into poetry will help it regain some of the audience it has lost in recent decades. But too often the narrative strategies employed by these poets are far behind contemporary fiction and even farther behind film. These poets inadvertently pander to their potential audience by implying that it cannot handle complexity in poetry. This is why most narrative poetry fails to enlarge the audience for poetry. And the most enduring recent book of narrative verse to reach a large audience, Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red (1997), is one of the last books that proponents of the New Narrative would champion.

There are poets writing now who write accessible poetry without conforming to outdated narrative strategies, condescending to their readers by exploiting identity politics, or reciting domestic anecdotes that culminate in trite epiphanies. (Another major problem with contemporary poetry is the prevalance of poets who present one-sided, often self-serving views of their life experiences, a tendency that results in a dull cacophony: with so many poets writing so unimaginatively about their lives, it is no wonder the average literate person steers clear of contemporary American poetry.) The work itself, not the public relations surrounding it (television appearances by the Poet Laureate, poems read at Presidential inaugurations, poetry sound bytes on NPR, inflammatory remarks and condemnation from the Anti-Defammation League—such public spectacles, while good for individual careers, do little for poetry) is what will help poetry gain a wider audience, if not the mythical huge general audience of yesteryear. Poetry is an art form distinct from fiction, music, film, and television. While it can, and does, incorporate elements from each of the other art forms, poetry is something else. Adding narrative to poetry—making it more like conventional fiction—only makes poetry more like fiction; it does not expand the audience—actual or potential—for poetry.

Why not? Because those who read poetry do so because they want to read poetry—not fiction in an alternative form, but an alternative to fiction. This is where accessibility can benefit poetry and its readers. A poetry written with the rare (and difficult) combination of accessibility and close attention to the possibilities of language and imagination has a great capacity to draw readers—not poetry that tells stories, not poetry built on predetermined identity, not poetry that requires a PhD reading list to decode, but a poetry that presents enough of a challenge to make its readers feel sufficiently engaged in and by the work, that provides readers with adequate entry points for that engagement, that privileges medium as well as message, that evinces a poetic imagination that can transcend, or at least side-step, the morasses of identity politics and therapeutic self-expression. In other words, a poetry blending difficulty, accessibility, artfulness, and imagination.

3 comments:

Joseph Duemer said...

I've been trying to write this essay for a decade, too, with far less success. There are half-formed versions of many of these ideas scattered across my hard drive, so I appreciate your willingness to bring your thoughts into public even if you think they do not yet add up to an essay. I look forward to Part II.

Brian said...

Thanks. There are two more parts coming this week (they're already written; I just broke the piece into 3 parts for the sake of ease of reading-- 5000-word things seem particularly hard to read in Blogger).

I know that a good deal of this piece is out-dated (e.g., I'd spend a lot more time talking about video games), but Collins is still plugging along, selling lots of books, and we're still being forcefed the various platitudes about accessibility and difficulty in poetry. Still, the dominant mode I allude to in the piece has been replaced, or at least infiltrated, by a more disjunctive lyric mode.

If I could finish the piece, I'd broaden the scope way beyond Berman and Collins. But I know I'll never finish it, or the dozen another essays that I started in the late 1990s/early 2000s.

Thanks again for checking in.

Firefly said...

I am a relatively inexperienced reader, and certainly not a writer, of poetry, but the material I'm interested in - that got me invested in reading poetry in the first place - is "difficult"; the first poet I really fell in love with was J.H. Prynne. Before Prynne, the only poetry I had some passing familiarity with was a bit of Romantic, a dash of Shakespeare, some Rumi - the usual, I guess - and feminist poetry, mainly Audre Lorde. Now, I'm a visual artist, enrolled in a BFA program at an exceedingly "fine" art school, and I have a working knowledge of poststructuralist theory and so on. I was raised partially by a former editor of a pretty well-known poetry periodical, too; I'm not the mythical "average reader." Still, I don't find dense or complicated poetry hard to handle so much as *more* engaging.

But.
I'm also transgender, intersex, queer, neuroatypical and disabled, and I'm a feminist and an anti-authoritarian political radical. Forgive my ignorance around poetry-world debates and clichés, but I'm baffled by the reference to condescending "exploitation" of identity politics. The simple fact is that my experiences, like those of many oppressed people, are not represented in/folded into/taken into account in 99% of the writing in the English language, and it *is* an issue, not just of representation or storytelling, but of incorporation into the very fabric of the English language. There are literally no words for my experiences, for who I am, in conventional English. Being the language-hackers that they are, poets seem uniquely positioned to address the fissures in language, the silences and gaps, in a way that speaks directly to such experiences and even manages to initiate some healing. Perhaps not a '90s-style identity politics, but post-identarian.

For that matter, some of this can be done without any language "difficulty" at all. My (non-Art) communities turn regularly to feminist poetry, often slam poetry, for healing. I've found healing in these community rituals as well - isn't there room for this? If it is really helping marginalized and shat-upon people to find each other, form community bonds and some sense of mutual self-worth, in what part is that "condescending?" Where does the condescension slip in - when the poet sells books? When they appear on Def Poetry Jam? In an anthology edited by Adrienne Rich?
Is it possible that different poetries serve different needs? I'm sure this is also a shopworn cliché in some circles, but I simply look for, and find, different things in a modernist or postmodernist poet and in a feminist slam event, or in a slam (which relatively rarely involves poetry that would be interesting to read) and a more printed word-centered feminist poet. I cried the first time I read Lorde - and the second, and the third. I didn't cry when I first read Prynne, nor did I need to - and I'm not disappointed at the lack of structural complexity and invention in Lorde, because it's not what I'm looking for.

...not to excuse Billy Collins. There is no excuse for Billy Collins.