Thanks so much--Kyla, Marilyn, Alice, Tim, Wendy, Neil--for the sounds of your voices in this wilderness we share. (Maybe more important than anything else in the writing life, I've recently come around to thinking, it's the inscrutable uniqueness of the individual voice that makes any work come fully alive.)
Perhaps I'm repeating myself (an echo? a function of advancing age?) but I want to underline the notion that I was not simply calling for transparency--or even a modicum of transparency--in literary works. Rather that writers, especially the more inscrutable among us, might walk out from the shadows and shed some light for readers on the paths their work took toward public consciousness. That the shared experience of literature enhances--and makes more indelible--the private experience.
I understand that a writer does not owe readers a shortcut to the meaning of any work. As the great Frank O'Hara wrote in "Personism," "... can you really care if anybody gets it, or gets what it means, or if it improves them. Improves them for what? For death? Why hurry them along? Too many poets act like a middle-aged mother trying to get her kids to eat too much cooked meat, and potatoes with drippings (tears). I don’t give a damn whether they eat or not. Forced feeding leads to excessive thinness (effete)." True. But I still want to get invited to the table.
- Steve LewisonHow Transparent Should Poetry Be?on 11/18/17 @ 9:13
Fantastic. Yes. I was thinking that science writing is also typically inaccessible. And credentialed biologists look at my fiction for kids and roll their eyes at my effort to make nature and animal sentience accessible... I also thought of Bruno Bettelheim's THE USES OF ENCHANTMENT (about writing for young people) --the story is the vehicle for the deeper meaning. Bravo, Steve! - wendy e townsendonHow Transparent Should Poetry Be?on 11/14/17 @ 12:25
Steve, the premise of your essay could certainly find justification through examples of the work of many writers. And that, I think, is the issue–– not that some poets write works that are difficult for an "average" reader (whoever that may be) to absorb and experience–– which could have as much or more to do with the intention and capacity of the individual writer than with the inexperience of the individual reader.
I think many of the so-called difficult or inscrutable writers, eg. Stephan Mallarme, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Paul Celan, Leslie Scalapino, Michael Palmer, etc., who conduct their explorations at the limits of language to discover and rediscover the limits of language, leave trails of clues for their readers to follow if they are so inclined. These of course are worlds that require more than one reading to enter. Clues are there however ready to be picked up and examined by any who upon hearing the work find something intriguing or compelling in the language or structure or the music or the humor of punning (Finnegan's Wake) or any of the vast wealth of language experience available to those who enjoy such things.
Ginsberg and Jeffers, Bass and Olds, Collins and Dove, Rumi and Li-Young Lee offer much language pleasure
to any reader ready and willing to enter their worlds with an open mind but must we stop there? At that level of exploration? Some of us of course. That is what feels right. But let's be careful not to lump all writing that is not immediately accessible to the average reader as purposefully obscure and suggest elitism in its motivation. After living through the Holocaust for instance, Paul Celan, whose mother tongue was German, had to find new language in German through which to see the life he had then to live. The old comprehensible German no longer existed for him.
- Timothy BrennanonHow Transparent Should Poetry Be?on 11/14/17 @ 8:45
Right on, Steve! Just because I might be good at making word associations doesn't make me a poet. If I want dissonant sounds, there's always Philip Glass . I don't have to know the specific reference the poet makes, but I am moved to fellow feeling because of the truth of the reference. Tell me the truth as you know it. That's much more difficult to write, isn't it? And more deeply satisfying for writer and recipient. Being overly abstract is avoidance, and however cleverly crafted, is easier to do. Sorry, Westchester Writer Lady, I don't mind working to hear a poem -- I like reading over and over and out loud and know that with each reading I'll be closer to the poet's truth, rich and dense and deep. But if that doesn't happen, and I'm still skating around the impenetrable ice, well, I'm with the drunken sister in law. Thanks, Steve. - Alice RomanoonHow Transparent Should Poetry Be?on 11/13/17 @ 3:58
Thank you for this wonderful conversation. Like many readers of fiction, I have long been intimidated by poetry. The contemporary poets I read in the sixties and seventies seemed deliberately obscure as if to guard their exclusivity. I believe in transparency and am
halppy that in recent years poets and readers agree. However, as you say, transparency should not mean simplicity. Some of these require a single reading. Instead, I look for a higher level of seriousness, something that makes you think again, recognize that there are implications that go beyond that lively first reading. I like poets who care about sound, whose words demand reading aloud. - Marilyn Ogus KatzonHow Transparent Should Poetry Be?on 11/13/17 @ 3:36
Bravo. This needed to be said. There's nothing worse than wading through metaphor and syntax that seems to do little beyond gratifying the writer. I want to be drawn in by poetry, but need something to hold on to, to make it real. This admonishment to pay a little more attention to accessibility to the reader isn't dumbing down, but working at a higher level. The best teachers (which artists are at some level) can make the densest material clear to all her students. Contemporary fiction could learn something from this too!
- Kyla KupfersteinonHow Transparent Should Poetry Be?on 11/13/17 @ 2:37
"Accessible" is too elastic a word. It can stop just this side of coy or aggressive impenetrability, or it can mean dumbed down to such an extent that the poem is no longer a poem. Occupying the vast in-between terrain of accessibility are the many poems that challenge the reader and invite further exploration by giving just enough moments of direct apprehension to provide a temporary grip. "A Thousand Bluebirds" does that for me.
- AnnaonDo Poems Need to Be Accessible?on 11/13/17 @ 11:11
Lovely poem. Living in the Boston area, I recognize the setting of your poem. I can relate to giving my teenagers driving lessons in big parking lots but, unlike you, I was too petrified to notice my surroundings. - Evelyn KriegeronDriving Lessonson 11/8/17 @ 8:35
Right back at you, Judith, with thanks for continuing the conversation. Just a clarification about the 'inherent assumptions" in the piece: I do assume that the readers of Talking Writing are primarily college educated and that some are academics--and because it's critical for any writer to know her or his audience, the focus of the piece is narrowed by that understanding. However, I do not in any way assume that progressives are either college educated or part of the academic community. I know firsthand that is not the case. With respect to this piece, though, my focus is not necessarily on distinguishing between the upper middle class and working class whites who voted for Trump, but on those of us on the left whose patent disrespect for others' perspectives have so isolated the progressive movement from exercising real power in this country that heroes like your father-in-law (yes, thank you, Harry!) have seen much of their good union work flushed down the toilet by ideologues on the right who draw much of their
support from the people who are most hurt by their corrosive anti-union sentiment ... the very same people that progressives hold in such contempt. - Steven LewisonTrump Is Our Fault, Tooon 9/21/17 @ 12:18
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