The Problem of Accessibility

By now, I have heard many poets complain about accessibility in poetry, and how it waters down the art. In fact, I have always firmly believed that poetry is about communicating an experience through art. The reader necessarily has to bring their faculties to bear, and maybe do some work. But beyond some pretty basic requisites, I’ve always felt that poems should be accessible.

Writing poetry has likewise become evermore accessible. The abundance of open mic readings, the explosion of small presses, self-publication, chapbooks, online journals, and MFA programs tells it. People write poetry, perhaps now more than ever, and naturally want to share their work. I don’t claim to fully understand why, exactly. But I have some thoughts on how we got here and what this means.

Poets who complain they “can’t write prose” irk me no end. I’ll start by just getting this off my chest. Such statements immediately betray the misunderstanding that poetry is about expression rather than precision. Learning to compose words into grammatically correct sentences, sentences into cohesive paragraphs, paragraphs into coherent essays–should absolutely be a prerequisite to sitting down to write a poem. Why would anyone think otherwise?

The beats did for poetry what punk rock did for popular music. Armed with a few power chords, a fast if unoriginal drum beat, and some angst (as well as sometimes peanut butter), anyone with a garage and a few friends could start to play music. Likewise, the intense focus on sensation and alienation (the mind alienated from society, mostly) brought on a kind of poetry that, on the surface, looked easy to write.

So, now poetry is perceived as an accessible art form, for better or worse. Technically speaking, it is. Unlike classical music, by the time most people reach, say, twelve years of age in a developed country, they have been fully equipped with the requisite skill required to create poems: they can write. No need to specialize on an instrument, or build skills through scales for a decade or two before you can really start expressing yourself. Just about everyone has the option by the age of twelve to start writing and calling it poetry.

Furthermore, the de-formalization of poetry has made it ever more accessible. You don’t even have to know what an iamb is anymore. In fact, for the most part, meter and rhyme are passé. This might have a lot to do with the sense of legitimacy some poets must feel in reviving and tackling formal structures like the sestina and villanelle: not everyone can pull it off. Yet these days, just about everyone can pull of something that resembles poetry at least as much as strumming power chords emphatically resembles studied musicianship.

Collin Kelly has been arguing the notion that there is no such thing as bad poetry. Obviously, he’s never sat in on a creative writing course for non-majors, or spent too long in a Hallmark store. There are definitely those attempts at self-expression that fall short of art in our world. Sometimes, it doesn’t even take the passage of time or pronouncement of critics to recognize it. And when great art hits, likewise, it can be known.

All art must be considered in context with its time. Anyone since Jackson Pollock spattering paint on a canvas is just making a paint-spattered canvas; not art. So here we are in modern poetry–as far afield from sonneteers as it gets, with forms like the prose poem stripping away even techniques like the line break from the poet’s palette. In a sense, to some people, it must look like flinging paint.

A lot of what gets published these days, especially in respectable magazines whose main focus is not poetry, actually reminds me of modernist art–a square, say, blue, on a canvas. With a red triangle. That’s all. The kid in the museum looks up at his dad and says, “I could have done that.” And the father smiles down and says, “But you didn’t, son–that’s the point.”

Yet so much of what I see is the same blue square, the same red triangle, the same sense in which people seem to be saying with their work, “I could have done that.” And then, unfortunately, do. Ultimately, innovation only counts for so much. There are principles at the heart of poetry that make a work perennial. But the proliference of work that is churned out from the neck up, and by contrast the proliference, too, of work also slopped out from the heart to the sleeve to the pen–makes poetry seem accessible in the way that anyone can draw a square, or a triangle, or spatter paint.

The best art comes from heart and mind fully engaged. It strives to communicate (not spoon feed) an artistic experience to the reader. It is therefore accessible, yet hard to reproduce. In this way, it furthers the progression of art as a legitimate challenge to future artists, because we do not immediately shrug and say, “I could have done that.” Instead we are left asking, “Where did that come from? How did that work? Why does it affect me this way time and time again? How can I bring my own version forth of something so strong and lasting?”

The mark of great art is neither, “huh?” or “eh.” It is, “wow.” And the experience of “wow” is always accessible–always human.