Give Our Bells Back Their Tongues

The poems and interviews in the latest Shenandoah eviscerated me (in a good way, as opposed to the cockney slang “gutted” or some form of seppuku). The following portion of an interview with Claudia Emerson particularly resonated with me:

Sarah Kennedy: Two terms, “accessibility” and “difficulty,” crop up in discussions of current poetry so frequently that it sometimes seems that a poet can only attain one of these. What are your thoughts about the issue of accessibility and the potential readerships of contemporary poetry?

Claudia Emerson: One of my first loves in poetry was Robert Frost, and I was inspired early on by his deceptive simplicity. Instead of “accessibility,” we might also aspire for “clarity” and then strive for, instead of “difficulty,” “complexity.” If we care about readers and all (and not just those in the academy), we have to give them a way into the poem. And I think we need to remember that clarity does not preclude depth. If our language is precise, our imagery clear, our metaphors original and well crafted, then we can indeed create poems that will reward a listener on being heard for the first time and also replay the astute close reader. I am willing to work pretty hard at [here I assume she means reading, rather than writing] a poem–but only one that eventually repays my rigorous attention to it.

Poetry can be particularly vulnerable to the kind of experiment that deliberately sacrifices meaning, for one example, to explore language as unstable and untrustworthy; the poetry then proves that–but of course such poetry’s continued existence needs its accompanying criticism (or dissertation or panel presentation)–and I would suggest that the criticism (or the “explanation”) becomes too essential a part of the poetry since without it, certain kinds of poems are bells without tongues.

Thanks to the Poetry Daily newsletter for first pointing out a portion of this excerpt to me.