A Poetry Fairy Tale

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nce upon a time, there was a Young Intellectual Poet who lived with his friends in a beautiful tower. He loved poems, and read often. One day, he read a Great Poem that imparted to him a deep sense of mystery. Assuming the poem itself must actually be a mystery, he set out to solve the poem. He researched and read, and came up with many theories. His writings on the poem and its meaning were very poetic. People liked what he said, and decided that he understood the poem very well, because they were dazzled by his writing, thinking, and theories.

Heartened, the Young Intellectual Poet began to write poems of his own. Thinking that great poems must necessarily be mysteries to be solved, he began to omit certain parts of his writing and obfuscate others. His poems became cryptograms, rebuses, and riddles. Only he and his friends held the keys to unlock the poems. They also wrote many papers about his poems and other enigmatic poems (for now such was the fashion), again using poetic language and intricate theories.

The people in the village loved the Great Poem that originally inspired the Young Intellectual Poet, because it imparted a sense of mystery to them as well. The new poems coming out of the tower, by contrast, simply confused them. But because it was said that the Young Intellectual Poet was a great artist, they assumed the fault must be with themselves. Gradually, the villagers lost interest in poetry, deciding they were not smart enough for it — except for the few that enjoyed solving riddles. They went off to the tower to study.
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The Problem of Accessibility

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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.

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A Crisis of the Personal in Poetry?

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I’ve been following some of Ron Silliman’s recent posts about the effect he and Gabe Gudding have been tracing of “McPoem” — cookie-cutter work based on personal experience churned out through the business of MFA programs — on the course of poetry in the past thirty years. Ron’s musings on Gudding seem to imply a strong connection between, “self-expression as a means of growth” and poems expressed badly. I don’t know the inner workings of the multitude of MFA programs available today, but from personal experience as a modern writer navigating the straits between sentimentalism and just mentalism, I can relate to and speak to the notion that poetry should be personal.

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